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In an Arpaio Hellhole: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

By Margaret Regan

Joe Arpaio
Joe Arpaio. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Mariana Rodriguez is one of the hundreds of thousands of Latinx victimized by Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County. Recently pardoned by President Trump for his crime of criminal contempt of court, Arpaio had been found guilty of disobeying a court order to stop racially profiling Latinx drivers and stopping them in the streets.

An undocumented immigrant brought to the US from Mexico as a baby, Mariana, a devout young Christian, was locked up in Arpaio’s notorious Maricopa County jail system when she was a teenager. When her mother fell ill with leukemia, Mariana went to work at fifteen to support the family, while still going to high school. At eighteen, she was arrested and slapped with two felonies—one for using a fake name to work, the other for forgery, for signing the fake name on a county food-worker card. Mariana was incarcerated in the Arpaio hellhole known as Estrella to await trial. In 2010, two years before Mariana was jailed, the US Appeals Court of the Ninth Circuit declared that conditions in the Arpaio jails constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, the conditions were so egregious that undocumented immigrants often gave up their right to a trial, pled guilty and risked deportation, just to escape the horrors. That’s what happened to Mariana, as Margaret Regan describes below in an excerpt from Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire.


On her first day in an Arpaio jail, in the short-term holding pen at Fourth Avenue Jail, Mariana was locked up with twenty other women, most of them older than she was and a lot tougher. None of them had been convicted: they were being held for trial, innocent until proven guilty, but no one would guess that by the treatment they got. Mariana was in the packed cell from ten in the morning until eleven that night, and the only food she and the others got all day was a small bag of peanut butter—an Arpaio specialty—and bread and juice, delivered at 6:00 p.m. There was a single toilet, in a bathroom that had no door. The walls and floor were concrete, and the only furnishing was a concrete bench that was part and parcel of the wall. The bench wasn’t big enough for all the women, and many of them spent the day shivering on the cold floor, chilled by AC in overdrive.

Mariana and sixteen of the others eventually were chained hand and foot, marched into a bus, and driven to Estrella, the jail that would be their long-term home. Its name—the lovely Spanish word for “star”—was no match for its harsh conditions. Estrella sat on a vast tract of land in southwest Phoenix, along with three other Maricopa County jails. One of them was the notorious Tent City, where Arpaio housed up to 2,126 inmates in outdoor tents, in the cold of the winter and in the heat of the Phoenix summer. Estrella held a thousand inmates, most of them women, divided up into dormitory-style pods, ruled by a cadre of tough guards.

Their first order: strip. The women were ordered to “take off everything,” underwear included. “It was something so embarrassing to me,” Mariana said. “I don’t even change in front of my mom. It was four girls all naked.” But it got worse. The guard barked, “Turn around. Bend over and open up your cheeks and cough.”

The women next donned the striped prison garb worn by all Arpaio prisoners. Designed for maximum mortification, the black-and-white-striped tops and pants look like old-fashioned jailhouse wear. (Male prisoners, famously, are given pink boxer shorts.) The women were assigned to beds segregated by the seriousness of their criminal charges. The prisoners in “minimum” were accused of nonviolent offenses; “medium” was for violent crime; and “maximum was if you killed somebody,” Mariana said. “I stayed with the minimum girls.”

Mariana’s K dorm was a single large room, lined with sixty double bunk beds. Eighty-seven women were packed into the place, watched over by guards who sat in a space that was more wire cage than office. The toilets were in a separate room that had no doors—and no privacy—and the showers blasted out water that was unbearably hot. The prison issued soap, “bad toothpaste,” and menstrual pads. Tampons were forbidden, and if women were caught fashioning them out of toilet paper “they’d get in trouble,” Mariana said. Twice every day the women were required to clean up their quarters: mop, sweep, clean the bathroom, showers, and wipe down the sinks.

The Estrella food was both skimpy and bad, and Mariana was hungry all the time. Breakfast was at eight: two pieces of hard bread, a bag of peanut butter, and two small milks. There was no lunch. Dinner was colorless “slop,” Mariana said, “maybe soy meat stew with something else hard. Maybe there’d be one stalk of broccoli, rice or beans, or mashed potatoes. But no salt or flavor.” One day a reporter turned up and tried and failed to eat the evening meal. He declared it the “nastiest” thing he’d ever tried.

Sometimes family or church friends would put money into Mariana’s account so she could buy chips or tuna at the jail canteen. When she was flush, she’d save the hard bread from breakfast and feast on a tuna-fish sandwich for lunch.

Though Maricopa County asserts that Estrella has “outside areas for recreation,” the “rec yard” adjacent to K dorm wasn’t a yard at all. It was a small, walled, windowless room with no ceiling or roof; wires were strung across the top to prevent escape. The prisoners were allowed there briefly at 7:00 a.m. each day. They could look up through the wires, Mariana said, and “sometimes see the sky.”

At first, Mariana was too scared to talk to any of her fellow prisoners. She was the youngest, and she kept to herself. Eventually she ventured to speak to some of the other Latinas; plenty of them had also been jailed—and charged with a felony—for using a fake name to work.

Her bunkmate below couldn’t stop crying, and Mariana often tried to calm her. “As a Christian, I’d ask, ‘Are you OK? Do you want me to pray for you?’ She’d say, ‘Yeah.’ I held her hand and prayed.”

One night, when she saw a circle of women standing together, Mariana joined them. Holding hands, together they walked into the little TV room, turned off the noise, and prayed.

From then on, Mariana was part of the prayer circle; eventually she led two groups every night, praying with women in English and in Spanish. Even the toughest women started softening around her. A prisoner who looked like a gangbanger—all tattoos and attitude—began to pray with the others, and from time to time she let a smile creep across her hard face.

In one of the few breaks to the oppressive monotony of the Estrella days, clergy came to minister on Tuesdays. Her faith brought her comfort, but Mariana suffered in the jail. It was a hellhole where guards were forever shouting. “They yelled and screamed every day,” Mariana said. Even a command as simple as “Move down the hallway” was delivered at high volume and wrapped in anger.

They leveled punishments for the slightest of infractions. One time, all the prisoners had been ordered to stay in their beds. Mariana sneaked out from under the covers to go to the bathroom, and made the mistake of flushing the toilet. “It was really loud. The officer yelled, ‘All of you! You’re going to be on lockdown all day.’” Mariana had triggered the punishment of all eighty-seven women.

The guards routinely checked the beds for contraband, and on one occasion they told all the women to put their property on their bunks. When some prisoners yelled in protest, the whole dorm was put on lockdown. “We had to stay in bed, no talking, no showers, for three days,” Mariana said. “Everybody got punished.”

Some prisoners were addicts going through a tortured withdrawal from heroin and meth. “They were kicking, vomiting, shaking,” Mariana said. “I’d never seen anything like that.” Even then, the guards were cruel. Mariana saw one young addict lying in her bed, looking “like a zombie. The officer was screaming, ‘You have to get up. You think I feel bad for you? This is what you wanted. You took that stupid decision to take drugs.’”

Worse than all of it—the confinement indoors, the lousy food, the verbal abuse, the lack of privacy—was the painful separation from her mother and siblings They couldn’t visit, because they were undocumented themselves, and phone calls were expensive: three dollars for just fifteen minutes.

Around the time that Marianna marked her nineteenth birthday in jail, her mother’s chronic illness suddenly turned critical. The pain in her back grew so intense that the family rushed her to the hospital. Mariana knew something was wrong, but no one told her how bad off her mother really was. On the phone from the hospital, her mom would tell her, “It’s nothing bad.”

With so little to go on, Mariana prayed. “I told God, ‘Lord, you keep it under control.’”


The Maricopa County prosecutor was refusing to budge on Mariana’s legal case; he wouldn’t hear of a plea deal that would reduce her felony charges to misdemeanors. Mariana’s public defender, Christopher E. Manberg worked hard to persuade him, arguing that her statements to police officers the day of her arrest should be considered involuntary, given her youth and lack of familiarity with the law. And he emphasized that the only reason she used a fake ID was to support her family after her mother fell ill.

The attorney collected a sheaf of character testimonials—from everyone from Mariana’s Subway boss and a higher-up Subway exec to her minister, her apartment manager, and a fellow inmate at Estrella. A Subway manager, Jesse Vasquez, wrote that Mariana was one of the top five employees among the hundred he supervised. “Our customers loved to see her,” he said; she “always greeted them with a smile.”

Wendy Wang, Mariana’s immediate boss, called her exceptional, a hard worker who was always reliable. Wendy had planned to promote her to assistant manager, she wrote. “If I could, I would rehire her.”

The prosecutor was unmoved both by evidence of Mariana’s character and the suggestion that her actions were undeserving of a felony conviction. The most he would do was drop the felony forgery charge and downgrade her impersonation charge to a Felony 6—the lowest level of felony.

Chris told Mariana that if she pled not guilty and tried to fight her case, she’d have to stay in Arpaio’s purgatory another year awaiting trial. Mariana was trapped. She knew she couldn’t stand a whole year of the screaming guards, the revolting food, the confinement indoors, the crying women, a year of not seeing her mom.

So she gave up and pled guilty to the felony, which made her automatically eligible for deportation.

Four days before Christmas, Mariana was sentenced to time served. She’d been in prison three and a half months, one hundred and seven days, to be precise, already well over the ninety days normally meted out for a Felony 6.

“Chris told me, ‘Game over. You signed the paper. You’re going to get deported right away.’”


About the Author 

Margaret Regan is the author of two award-winning books: Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Firea 2015 Southwest Book of the Year; and  The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands, a 2010 Southwest Book of the Year and a Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. A longtime writer for the Tucson Weekly, Regan has won many regional and national awards for her immigration reporting, including the 2016 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lectureship at Roosevelt University, Chicago. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.