Sheriff Arpaio goes before a Houston audience. He tells them about why he has pink underwear in his jails. He goes through an explanation that his white underwear was being stolen from his famous jails, so he made it pink to prevent it from being stolen. Besides the obviousness of the lie, that inmates aren’t required to return all the clothes that they have been given by the jail, Sheriff Arpaio makes it clear that he knows that it is a lie. He says that’s the “official” reason. “I always have an official reason so I can win the lawsuits and then I have my reasons.# The audience laughs heartily. The “real” reason, the Sheriff goes on, is that the inmates hate pink.
The audience chuckles at the prospect of the Sheriff tricking courts with a pretextual claim that underwear is being stolen when in fact it is just another way of stigmatizing those accused of crime. In fact, the audience merely heard a second pretext which covered the more cynical true reason for pink underwear. In discussing his reversal on the issue of immigration with a reporter, Sheriff Arpaio revealed the true purpose behind pink underwear. “You know what my joke is: I can get elected on pink underwear. I don’t need this illegal immigration to get elected.”
Sheriff Arpaio doesn’t care about the color of his inmates’ underwear. He doesn’t care about what is right or about what is good correctional policy. He cares about doing what is popular. He cares about getting reelected. The cruelty or inhumanity of the Sheriff’s policies or decisions is never considered, only whether the general public will eat up the publicity.
In November 12, 2001, Erik Vogel is floridly psychotic. He enters the jail after wandering through his neighborhood aimlessly. He is paranoid and schizophrenic. When approached by police officers, he says that he needs to speak with the President. They fight until one of the City of Phoenix police officers recognizes that there is a better way. Rather than fighting, the officer says that they could take him to the president. The fight stops. Erik is arrested and taken to the jail.
When he arrives, he is identified as mentally ill. He is supposed to be taken to the mental health care unit. He believes he is in the World Trade Center. He keeps saying that the satellites are watching. He characteristically buttons his shirt all the way up and is a very shy person. When told that he has to dress out into the pink underwear of the jail, he refuses. Erik believes that he is being dressed in pink underwear as a precursor to being raped. In his psychotic state, it is real to him.
Regardless of whether pink underwear should be worn by pretrial detainees (who according to the law cannot be punished until they are convicted), should a mentally ill man have his clothes forcibly removed by many unfamiliar men stripping him naked while on the dirty jail floor so they can place him in pink underwear while he screams that he is being raped? Who wins? Did the Detention Officers win as they placed the pink underwear on a mentally ill person? Did the public win?
Or do we all lose? In striving for public adulation, the policy of pink underwear is enforced against everyone, including the mentally ill. Detention officers have to fight to put pink underwear on those that aren’t capable of understanding the joke. Erik Vogel stays under his bed in the mental health care unit for three days and dies the day he thought he would have to return to the place he thought he was raped.
Pink underwear matters when it is based upon a lie. Pink underwear matters when it reveals mindless cruelty without exception, where it forces Detention officers to fight with psychotic inmates instead of allowing them to be taken to the mental health unit in a restraint chair to be sedated and changed into jail clothes or be allowed to wear white underwear that hasn’t been died pink yet.
Pink underwear matters because it evidences the fact that our Sheriff has put his ego above his oath to uphold the Constitution. That should never happen in our country.