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The shadow of Sheriff Joe Arpaio hangs heavy over this book. As head of the Maricopa County jail system in Arizona he has instituted programmes in which prisoners are fed ‘expired’ meat; are triple-bunked to house 800 in a facility originally meant for 360; and he boasts that it costs less to feed the inmates than the prison dogs. It was in this jail that Englishman Shaun Attwood lived for two years.
Attwood moved to America from Widnes in the early 1990s, and became a successful stock broker who organised raves and dealt Ecstasy as a sideline. A large sideline. By the time he was arrested, Attwood had stopped dealing drugs, and was trying to rebuild his life with a new girlfriend. In Hard Time, he tells of his two years on remand inside Maricopa County Towers Jail, and the things he saw.
What he describes is truly awful. There is a cockroach infestation so bad Attwood has to mummify himself in a sheet when he wants to sleep. The jail’s toothpaste is contaminated with a solvent found in antifreeze. Attwood has to unblock an overflowing toilet with his hand, in a cell without running water with which to wash it afterwards. It’s a cocktail of racial and homophobic violence, in which a single mis-step can lead to being ‘smashed’.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the men and women in this prison have not been convicted of any crime. In the eyes of the law they are still innocent, and yet they are forced into a system of casual brutality, which is recorded in faithful detail in Hard Time.
Attwood is a welcoming narrator, with a fast-paced, easy style. Although stylistically pedestrian at times, the things he describes are so fascinating and horrible that it is difficult to look away. Certain images will linger, such as Attwood on the phone to a girlfriend who is telling him about how she carries around “your sweaty T-shirt and Floppy [the Bear]” as a child molester is stomped into a coma behind him.
Despite the bizarre and frightening events, one cannot help but warm to Attwood, who took the opportunity of being in jail to read a lot, and to change the way in which he lived his life. His love for his fiancee and real shame at the trouble he caused his family shine through, and the violent and touching often nestle close to one another. Not many books can boast the line: “I’m going to have to mix the anti-fungal cream into my sweat… You drive me wild with your amazing beauty.”
A minor criticism would be that, as the book progresses, larger chunks of it are taken directly from Attwood’s letters at the time, and repeat things he has already told us, or refer to things he has not. The end also seems sudden, without any real appraisal of his experience or hints as to what is to happen to him once he is moved from jail to prison after sentencing.
However, that aside, it is a moving account of institutional savagery, and a penal system that has become more of an industry, with inmates being exploited for profit, and kept inside for as long as possible to maximise that profit. Although Attwood is admirably measured in his response, everything he records is a blistering indictment on the system created by “the worst sheriff in America” and raises questions about how we deal with our own prisoners. This is a good read, and a valuable book.
£9.99 Mainstream Publishing
Shaun Attwood will be reading from his book ‘Hard Time’ in Stoke Newington on 23 August. Click for Details