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The Second Toughest Sheriff in America

This chapter details the exploits, rise to fame, and eventual fall of Sheriff Gerald Hege, the CourtTV personality who painted his jail pink and berated his prisoners on a talk show before pleading guilty to embezzlement and obstruction of justice. In the process, author Alan Elsner begins to explore the public face of the "get tough on crime" movement.
This chapter is from the book

"The liberal approach of coddling criminals didn’t work and never will."
President Ronald Reagan

Sheriff Gerald Hege liked to boast that he ran the toughest—and pinkest—jail in America. It was definitely the pinkest but maybe only the second toughest. From his sleepy, small-town base in Lexington, North Carolina, self-described Barbecue Capital of the World, Hege turned himself into a national TV personality by striving for the unofficial title of meanest, baddest, roughest, toughest sheriff in America. He was also possibly the only one to have his own theme song, "The Man in Black."

All you bad guys had better leave town

Sheriff Hege’s not fooling around

Your days of breaking the law are through

When the Man in Black comes after you

(Spoken) That’s right. He’s got that big stick.

Go ’head and make his day.

He sure loves the smell of handcuffs in the morning.2

Hege was narrowly elected sheriff of Davidson County, a mainly rural area located in the middle of the state, in the big national Republican landslide of 1994. He quickly made a mark by painting the inside of the 300-bed county jail bright pink with blue pictures of weeping teddy bears on the walls to make inmates feel like "sissies." It was the height of the "get tough on crime" movement sweeping the nation, and Hege’s testosterone-soaked image perfectly fit the moment. He wore a black, paramilitary-style uniform and was often photographed wielding a five-foot-long stick or a semiautomatic. He designed a new logo for the sheriff’s department—a spider’s web with a big arachnid in its center—and he had a giant silver spider painted on the hood of his personal squad car, a souped-up, Nascar-style 1995 Chevy Impala with a Corvette engine.

On his Internet site,3 Hege sold a line of posters featuring himself in various threatening attitudes. There was Hege and his men busting a drugs trafficker on the interstate; Hege standing by his spider car brandishing a semiautomatic while prisoners wearing striped uniforms cleaned up trash; Hege wearing dark glasses and holding his stick with three officers similarly dressed arrayed behind him with assault rifles; Hege about to lead a squad of police dressed in full riot gear into action. It was all part of his pledge to make what he called "Hege country" a safe and fine place to live for law-abiding citizens and a living hell for "scumbags."

The posters had slogans like "Do the crime, scumbag, and you’ll do the time" and "Resistance is futile." There was also a variety of other merchandise for sale on the Internet site: spider web T-shirts, toy spider cars, Hege statuettes and coffee mugs, CDs with the theme song—even Sheriff Hege’s Lexington-style barbecue dip. The proceeds went to a police charity.

A county sheriff is the closest thing America has to a feudal baron. As long as he keeps public confidence and doesn’t mess up too badly, there are few constraints on his powers. He has no boss; he reports directly to the voters. Residents of Davidson County liked Hege’s style and reelected him in 1998 by more than 5,000 votes. In 2002, after three of his own trusted deputies were busted by federal agents for dealing in cocaine, marijuana, anabolic steroids and Ecstasy, he still won by about 1,700 votes. All three deputies were convicted and sent to prison.

While cultivating his own macho image, Hege feminized inmates of his jail by making them wear striped uniforms—baby blue for those charged with misdemeanors, lime green for sex offenders, pastel orange for accused felons and black for the road crew that worked outside the jail. He kept many inmates locked in their cells 23 hours a day. There were no exercise facilities, no television, no cigarettes, no coffee, no pencils or pens and no magazines. Books were censored: only Bibles and other approved texts were allowed. Family visits were limited to 10 minutes a week with no physical contact between the inmates and their loved ones.

Never mind that many inmates had not been convicted of anything and were in jail awaiting trial because they could not make bail. Never mind that many of those who had been convicted were serving relatively short sentences for misdemeanors. "It’s not my responsibility as sheriff to be concerned about whether they are guilty or innocent," Hege said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people I have in my jail are guilty of whatever they’ve been charged with. Very few can be rehabilitated and it’s not worth trying."4

Sheriff Hege first came to my attention in 1999 when Court TV gave him his own late-night talk show, Inside Cell Block F, which was filmed live in the jail with inmates as the "guests." The sheriff seemed to personify several different trends in U.S. society all at once. He was a poster boy for the "get tough on crime" crowd, but he was also a relentless self-publicist. And his show, which commanded a regular national audience of around a million, fit the fashion for "reality" TV. "The show is compelling because the inmates’ stories are compelling," said Court TV producer Andy Regal. "It’s not just reality TV; it’s harsh reality TV."

In my role as National Correspondent for Reuters News Agency, I was interested in the political and social forces that lay behind the explosive growth of U.S. prisons in the 1980s and 1990s. By the turn of the century, the richest country on the planet also had the world’s largest prison population, with more than 2 million of its citizens held behind bars. How did it happen that the United States, with only 5 percent of the global population, had a quarter of all the world’s prisoners?5 And what was life like for those inside this giant penal system? What was really going on behind the prison walls?

While investigating these issues, I had the opportunity to visit many prisons and jails around the country. I met murderers and rapists, prison wardens and corrections officers, sheriffs and police chiefs, prosecutors and defense attorneys, gang members, doctors, psychologists, child abusers, rape victims, mothers and juveniles behind bars. This book draws heavily on those experiences.

So it was that I found myself in Lexington on a warm spring day, interviewing Sheriff Hege, who looked a bit like Darth Vader in a baseball hat. He explained why he had painted the jail pink. "We have a lot of muscle-bound, tattooed guys in here who have done silly things. The pink and the teddy bears brings them down a bit," he said. "I was aiming for a day-care atmosphere—something like a girl’s bedroom, a little feminine touch. The color pink has a soothing effect on the inmate population."

Hege would have loved to have been called the toughest sheriff in America, but that was one title that eluded him. There was a lawman out west in Arizona who claimed to be even meaner, even rougher, even badder, and even more publicity-conscious. His name was Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and the surrounding area. When it came to media appeal, Arpaio always seemed one step ahead. He was elected in 1992, two years before Hege. He presided over the fourth largest jail system in the country with over 7,500 inmates, which made Davidson County seem strictly bush league. Hege had a pink jail; Arpaio made inmates wear pink underwear and streamed live images of convicts from the jailhouse to the Internet for almost three years until a judge ordered him to stop.6 Hege started a road crew; Arpaio had "the world’s first female chain gang" removing graffiti, picking up trash and burying paupers. Hege locked inmates in cells. Arpaio made hundreds of them live in tents under the hot desert sun, fed them only twice a day on green bologna and charged them money for the privilege. "Our meal cost is 45 cents a day for an inmate. Our dogs cost more to feed than the inmates," Arpaio told me in October 2003.

When a searing heat wave hit Phoenix in July 2003, with temperatures exceeding 130 degrees, Sheriff Arpaio allowed inmates one concession: they were permitted to take off their striped jail suits and roam around their tents in their pink underwear. Arpaio toured the facility and rejected inmates’ complaints. He told them, "It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths."7

Three months later, when I visited in mid-October, the temperature was still above 100 degrees. Arpaio took me on a tour of the tent city. Inmates, dressed in convict stripes, gathered around. The sheriff gleefully told them he was cutting their rations from 3,000 calories a day to 2,500. "I’m on a diet myself. I’m taking away your food because I’m trying to help you. You eat too much fat," he said. He shrugged off prisoners’ complaints that their food was often rotten. But it quickly became clear during our tour that the inmates in the tents were not the worst off by any means. Anyone committing a disciplinary offense was thrown into a punishment cell measuring 8 by 12 square feet that they had to share with three other prisoners for 23 hours a day.

Reporters and TV crews from as far away as New Zealand and Japan beat a path to Phoenix to cover Arpaio, who welcomed them all with open arms. "We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear," he said. Soon, images of inmates, chained around the left ankle in groups of five, flashed around the world. When one needed to go to Johnny-on-the-Spot, the rest all lined up in a row outside until she had finished.8

They worked picking up trash or burying the bodies of indigents who had died penniless on the streets or in the hospital at a county cemetery out in the desert. On the day I joined them, there were six bodies, two of them babies. The prisoners hauled the coffins out of vans and placed them above their final resting place. A young Catholic priest said a few brief prayers for the deceased. "We commit this baby boy back to earth and back to the custody of God who made him," he said, as one body in a tiny white casket was lowered into the ground. The baby did not even have a name. One or two of the women on the chain gang shed a tear. Then they got to work filling the hole.

As Arpaio never tired of saying, the public loved it. The more that prisoners suffered, the better. But why was it necessary? The men and women on the chain gang posed little or no escape threat; most were serving relatively short sentences for relatively minor crimes.9 They were little more than faceless props in Arpaio’s political psychodrama.

Over the years, Arpaio also attracted less welcome visitors—investigators from the Department of Justice and Amnesty International—as well as hundreds of lawsuits. The Justice Department forced him to agree in 1997 to improve conditions in the tents, reduce the use of "improper restraints," stun guns and pepper spray and identify officers "who may be prone to using excessive force."10 Most of the lawsuits came to nothing, but not all. There was the case of Scott Norberg who died of asphyxiation in a Maricopa County jail in 1996 after being forced into a "restraint chair" with a towel stuffed in his mouth. The autopsy report showed he suffered many scratches and lacerations to his head, face, neck and limbs, as well as burn marks that suggested he was repeatedly fired at from close range with a stun gun. The death was ruled accidental, but the county settled a lawsuit brought by Norberg’s parents for $8.25 million.11

Then there was Richard Post, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic with no criminal record who was arrested after exchanging insults with the owner of an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day, 1996.12 He alleged officers ignored his request for a catheter and put him in an isolation cell. Desperate to empty his bowels, he blocked the toilet to get some attention and caused a minor flood. Officers then strapped him in a "restraint chair" for several hours. They tightened the straps so tightly that he suffered permanent nerve damage to his spinal cord and neck and lost the ability to propel his own wheelchair. They also refused to let him sit on his gel cushion. As a result, he suffered a severely ulcerated anus. Post accepted a settlement of $800,000.13 Asked about these payouts, Arpaio was unrepentant. "The insurance company paid that. Not the taxpayers," he said of the Norberg case. "I’ll put my record against anybody. They can sue me all they want. But I’m not going to close the tents. I will still run a tough jail system."14

Hege clearly admired Arpaio and even displayed a framed letter from him in his office. The tone was friendly but dismissive. "Yup, you look mean, but where are your tents?" the Arizona lawman wrote.

Still, nobody could deny that Hege also had a flair for the dramatic. In 2001, a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he sent out Christmas cards showing himself standing in a desert with a camel and a Humvee in the background, holding the severed head of Osama bin Laden in one hand and a raised sword in the other. At the bottom of the card was the message: "Happy Ramadan! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Sheriff Gerald K. Hege."15

Despite such stunts, Hege was a determined and crafty politician. He had first worked in the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the early 1970s but was terminated after he kicked an inmate, leaving a size 11-1/2 boot print in his chest.16 Hege vowed to return—as sheriff. He ran in the Republican primary in 1986 and 1990 but lost both times. Hege realized he would never win without a firmer political base, so he got himself elected as chairman of the Davidson County Republican Party in 1991. Finally, in 1994, he won the prize he had sought for over twenty years.

"When I took over in 1994, the prisoners spent their time watching color TV, smoking and playing poker for money. They could get their girlfriends in for the night for $50. I changed all that," the sheriff said. "I want prisoners in my jail to have a bad time. If prisoners have a bad experience, hopefully they won’t come back."

But who were the "scumbags" he kept referring to? Was violent crime really out of control in Davidson County? Hege posted the county’s 10 Most Wanted on the Sheriff Department’s Web site. When I checked in mid-2003, there were only nine individuals on the list: no murderers, no rapists, no drugs traffickers, no child molesters. The most serious case was a man accused of first-degree burglary, kidnapping and robbery. The rest did not seem particularly menacing—a couple of suspected embezzlers, one man wanted for possession of stolen goods and one wanted for failure to pay child support. They hardly seemed worthy of Hege’s tough rhetoric.

The highlight of my visit to Davidson County came at nine o’clock, when it was finally time for the TV show to air. Cameras rolled into position inside the cell block. Producers were dashing around, and the sound guys checked levels as the "studio audience"—around 40 convicts wearing striped uniforms in various colors—filed in and sat on wooden benches. The klieg lights went on. Hege took his place and started to speak.

To my surprise, he was far from a TV natural. He spoke in a low, dull monotone and kept repeating himself. The featured "guests" were a sister and brother, Jodi and Jackie, who were both incarcerated in Hege’s jail at the time. Under jail rules that banned any contact between men and women, they spoke from cells on separate floors and were not allowed to see one another. They were dull as well. Jodi told a long and involved story about how her abusive parents drove her to alcohol and drugs. Her brother, Jackie, described how he took his first steps on a path to crime after his father tried to shoot him when he was 13. Hege didn’t waste much sympathy on them. "Should it be the taxpayers’ responsibility to rehabilitate you? They should just put you in prison and forget about you," he told the unhappy pair.

I had caught Hege at the height of his power and influence. But things turned bleak for the "man in black" in 2003. On September 15 he was indicted on 15 counts, including embezzlement and obstruction of justice, and suspended from his post. By then, Court TV had dropped his show, and the former publicity-seeker had retreated to the old farmhouse where he lived, refusing to speak to the media. The indictments accused Hege of taking $6,200 from a fund used for undercover drug buys, some of which he was alleged to have used for reelection celebrations. He also allegedly had deputies do repairs on his home during work hours and threatened to fire anyone who cooperated with investigators looking into his practices. Half a dozen deputies came forward to testify that Hege had a racial policy when it came to pulling over drivers. He allegedly instructed them to pull over anyone who was "darker than snow."17 Hege came up with $15,000 in bail to avoid being sent to his own pink jail. And on May 17, 2004, Hege agreed to resign as sheriff and pleaded guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He received a six-month suspended sentence, three months of house arrest and three years of probation but avoided jail time. 18

"He was a fun story for a while," wrote Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson. "You always like to see someone with flair. And Hege was smart enough to see that throbbing vein in the public’s forehead. Millions of people think criminals get off too easy, inside jail and out. But you always got the feeling with Hege that the point wasn’t punishing criminals or reducing crime or making a better place for the people who provide his paycheck. The point was Hege. The point was to make him a star."19

In 2001, as I drove away from Lexington, all this was still in the future. But I did have several concerns. To what extent did Hege’s reality TV reflect actual reality? He had certainly made the lives of his prisoners a lot more miserable. But were people safer than before? What actually lay behind the "get tough on crime" slogan that had swept America in the 1980s and 1990s? And one last question: what do handcuffs smell like in the morning?

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