CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Agostini
A controversial, anti-immigrant Arizona sheriff and a former Baywatch star will join together at a press conference Wednesday to promote an all-vegetarian diet for prisoners nationwide. In 2013, the Maricopa County jail system, run by the self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio, became the first in the nation to serve meat-free meals to prisoners. Pamela Anderson is an animal-rights activist representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as a spokeswoman.
According to the Sheriff’s office, cutting out meat from prison cuisine saves taxpayers roughly $200,000 a year. Other “benefits” include “reduced electricity costs, not having to tailor a variety of meals to suit different religious convictions and other special requests, and providing healthier meals that don’t spoil as quickly as animal products,” a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office press release stated. Arpaio will also begin a vegetarian diet on Wednesday.
“When we heard about the vegetarian jail in Maricopa County, that’s 8,300 people a day not eating meat and it’s a wonderful example for other jails around the country that could have health impacts on the inmates as well as saving taxes,” PETA’s Senior Vice President Dan Mathews told ThinkProgress. “[In terms of] duration, the food just doesn’t spoil and it’s an efficient wonderful program and we believe that prisoners are the ideal crowds to learn about a less violent diet and a more healthful diet.”
Mathews emphasized that the food he saw and tasted during a tour of the food factory plant last month was healthy. He said, “I was incredibly impressed to see the fresh produce. They have food that’s unpeeled so if you don’t want to eat it now — you can eat it later. They use soy chicken strips in the stew. It’s a wonderful food service program that really needs to be emulated.” He also added that prisoners could have peanut butter snacks.
But others have not had the same positive impression of Arpaio’s jail facilities, let alone their food. During a 2013 visit of the food factory after the meals switched over to an all-vegetarian diet, a Fox News affiliate reporter commented that the carrots in the stew were brown and that the soy looked like “wood chips.” Arpaio responded, “Oh, that’s probably just dirt. Don’t worry about that.” Inmates previously called the meals that they were served “slop.” According to a 2013 Time article, inmates have to pay for their own meals. And inmates are served two meals per day, rather than three.
Arpaio earned his reputation as a notorious county sheriff for both his harsh treatment of inmates and racial profiling of Latinos. Arpaio’s “Tent City,” an outdoor jail with electric fencing can hold more than two thousand immigrant detainees. Because the heat can rise to 137 degrees during the summer months, the tent structure serves primarily as brutal physical punishment. Arpaio said that he reserves punishment for those who have been convicted, yet the population consists of mostly pre-trial inmates, some of whom have low-level offenses like driving without a license. As he said in the past, Arpaio is an “equal opportunity guy, I lock up everybody.”
Anderson demonstrated a markedly different tone in her press release touting the vegetarian meals, saying, “I believe people can be rehabilitated from the inside out. Jails are full of people wanting to change, to make amends, to learn healthier habits and understand compassion and empathy.”
Still, Anderson’s appearance with Arpaio is the latest in a string of tactics by PETA that seem inconsistent with their humanitarian values. Last year, the organization offered to pay one month’s water bill for Detroit, Michigan residents, who had their water shut off because of outstanding payments. PETA stipulated that residents had to agree to go vegan for one month. But for Detroit residents who live in food deserts, where it’s difficult to find fresh fruits and vegetables, going vegan was described as tone deaf. The group has used other kinds of gimmicks to promote a vegan lifestyle, often using graphic images or using naked women covered in “blood” and trapped in cages for PETA promotional materials.
Despite Arpaio’s assurance that he’s saving taxpayer money with the meat-free meals, taxpayers still have to help pay at least $21.9 million to implement changes recommended by a court order to combat his department’s systemic racial profiling of Latinos. Those changes include improving training and technology equipment, to show that the sheriff’s office will no longer systemically single out Latinos during traffic and immigration stops.
In an email to ThinkProgress, PETA President Ingrid Newkirk wrote:
That’s right, slam PETA for praising something good that saves animals’ lives and is healthier for those incarcerated than the “mystery meat” usually served jail inmates. Under your rules, only pure people and pure institutions can be praised for anything, meaning there will be no news as even saints, now long dead, had flies on them. Under those rules, no one who works to stop any abuse to man or beast dare praise a living soul or agency for any step forward, no matter how large or small. That isn’t thinking progress, it’s negative thinking that provides no incentive for moral growth. A more helpful mindset would mean you can join in the celebration when our flawed society inches forward in any regard, whether human rights, animal rights, environmentalism, health, you name it.