Jane O'Meara Sanders, social worker and wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, on Sunday side-stepped the campaign circus to witness first-hand the "horrific" tent prison erected by notorious Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and meet with families who fell victim to his discriminatory and illegal law enforcement practices.
Arriving with leaders of the immigrant rights group Puente, Sanders said Arpaio "showed up unexpectedly" and gave the group a personal tour of the prison.
"I asked him several questions to which he had no answers," Sanders wrote online after the visit. "I asked about racial profiling, 'Papers Please,' and deputizing civilians to round up undocumented people," she said, referring to the 2010 law which empowered local police to check immigration status at traffic stops. Arpaio had notoriously imprisoned immigrants snatched up under that statute at Tent City.
Reportedly, when Sanders asked Arpaio if he was "supportive of racial profiling," he refused to "get into that because of legal issues."
In 2011, a Justice Department investigation found that Maricopa County Sheriff's office "engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing" and "engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos; and unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize" the county's policies. Later, in 2013, Arpaio was found guilty by a federal court of racial profiling and violating citizens' constitutional rights.
However, the sheriff did admit that temperatures in the outdoor complex, which houses roughly 8,000 detainees, can reach as high as 130°F.
According to the Phoenix New Times, when asked about the conditions, Arpaio responded:
"Let me put it this way," Arpaio said. “The men and women out fighting for our country—they’re living in tents. These people are all convicted [criminals]. They’re all doing their time."
In fact, all of Arpaio's prisoners haven't been convicted. Some are awaiting trial.
Sanders challenged whether the arrangement was humane.
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“This sun," she said. "We’re out here just for a few minutes, and it’s hard. To be in those tents."
"It’s 135 degrees in Iraq," Arpaio quipped.
Sanders said he also "bragged about removing meat from all their meals and having chain gangs."
During the tour, Sanders "wandered through the bunks chatting with inmates in English and Spanish," the New Times reports. Later, Sanders met with children whose parents were arrested and detained in Maricopa County.
"When people talk about immigrants, they never see what’s behind us in our countries," one immigrant said. "We don’t do it because we want space here. We do it because we are fleeing violence and corruption in our countries."
Sanders promised the families that she "won't forget them" and said that if her husband gets elected he will work to stop deportations. Sanders' visit came ahead of her husband's rally in Phoenix Tuesday afternoon.
"We hope that he will be president, but he and I will be around no matter what happens," she said, "and we will be working on your behalf."
In a press statement after the visit, Sanders said what she saw and heard "was very disturbing."
"Sheriff Arpaio did not even attempt to explain or excuse his inhumane treatment of people of color—not that he could," she continued. "That kind of attitude toward our fellow human beings is completely unacceptable, especially in elected officials and those who would seek public office."
Sanders added, "We all need to stand up and put an end to these egregious human rights abuses."