Celebrating a Racist, Abusive Sheriff is Not Vegan

Pamela Anderson and Joe Arpaio inspect bags full of vegetarian meals that are being packed into boxes. A Hispanic inmate in the foreground smiles.

By Prison Isn’t Vegan

PETA and their celebrity spokesperson Pamela Anderson made headlines this week by traveling to Pheonix to promote Sheriff Joe Arpaio. For those that don’t know, “Sheriff Joe” has been widely criticized for racial profiling of Latinos, racist discrimination against inmates, abuse of power, illegal arrests and deplorable conditions in jail, including numerous wrongful deaths under his watch.  This criticism has come from traditional human rights organizations like Amnesty International and ACLU, along with the New York Times (who called him “America’s Worst Sheriff“) and the U.S. Department of Justice who sued him for “intentionally and systematically discriminating against Latinos.”

So why exactly did Pamela and PETA decide to showcase “Sheriff Joe?” Because he serves vegetarian food to the inmates at Maricopa County Jail.

Sheriff Joe and Pamela Anderson

PETA is trying to spin it as a way to protect animals and promote health, but it’s clear Arpaio’s decision to serve vegetarian food is because it’s cheaper. In attempt to save money, “Sheriff Joe” has moved toward only serving two meals a day,charging inmates for their own meals, serving green bologna and has cut out salt, sugar and condiments from meals.

Examples of Arpaio’s abusive treatment of inmates are too extensive to list here (including “Tent City” in 135 degree heat, use of chain-gangs, and many others). While Arpaio’s specific form of racist abuse makes PETA and Anderson’s gesture of support particularly egregious, support for any jail or prison is problematic for an organization promoting veganism from an animal rights perspective.

Veganism rooted in a desire to liberate all animals from captivity and exploitation is inconsistent with supporting prisons. Prisons encage and exploit human animals.

This is particularly true in the context of the prison-industrial complex. Inmates (human animals) are held in captivity and forced to work against their will, while others profit from this captivity and forced labor. Arpaio’s use of chain-gangs is an excellent example of this. Inmates are forced to work in order to get out of lockdown. They do not get paid, providing free labor to the County. If another species were exploited for the financial benefit of humans, animal rights organizations would actively oppose it (as they should). It would be easy to imagine PETA criticizing animal “chain-gangs” given their opposition to animal-based industries and their position on chaining dogs.

A likely response will be that the people in prisons did something to be there, unlike animals on farms or at zoos. As part of the press release, Pamela Anderson said “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.”

But there are two things to consider about this:

First, PETA and Pamela went to a jail, not a prison. There’s a difference. The majority of people in jail are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted and are presumed innocent in our society. Those in jail are people awaiting trial who could not afford to post bail. So overwhelmingly, the people in Maricopa Jail and county jails like it are poor and working-class people who have not been convicted of any crime. The small percentage who are in jail after a conviction have been convicted of misdemeanors – lesser crimes including traffic violations, vandalism, minor drug possession, etc.

Second, incarceration doesn’t rehabilitate. The disconnect in the analysis of some animal rights activists is striking when comparing anti-social behavior among humans and non-human animals.  One example is Tilikum, the Orca held at SeaWorld who has killed three different trainers. The animal rights perspective has been to look at the trauma Tilikum suffered by being captured and held in captivity. No animal rights organization or activist would claim that the appropriate response is to continue to hold him in captivity in order to “rehabilitate” him.

Image of orca in aquarium

Similarly, animal activists embrace a thoughtful, nuanced and empathetic approach toward problematic behavior in dogs. (Something I’m familiar with from fostering and adopting rescued dogs). In addressing dog behavior, animal advocates encourage looking to the socialization, history and experiences of each individual animal: What in their background causes them to behave (or misbehave) in a particular way and how can you deal with the underlying cause? No dog trainer would suggest that locking a dog in a cage for years would be an effective way to get a dog to end their bad behavior. (Note that PETA takes a strong position against using dog crates) Yet PETA and other animal welfare organizations perpetuate the myth that caging humans leads to “rehabilitation.”

Embracing a radical social analysis means challenging and critiquing all societal assumption. And supporting liberation of all living things means freeing all humans from the cages of prisons.


This essay was originally published by NoCages.org on April 14, 2015.


Editor’s Note:

Sarah K. Woodcock of The Abolitionist Vegan Society argues that veganism is a practice that refers specifically to Nonhuman Animals. While supporting racial profiling and the imprisonment of humans is certainly inconsistent with the social justice ethic that undergirds veganism, veganism is an ethical position that directly and exclusively represents nonhuman animals.

Prison Rape and the Sexual Politics of Meat

Billboard that reads "The Freshes Meat outside the prison"

The above image was taken on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The billboard pictured reads, “The Freshest Meat Outside of a Prison,” and advertises a fusion restaurant called Chino Latino.  The mocking reference to prison rape is both saddening and telling.

Though we often critique patriarchy in relationship to female disempowerment and violence against women, it is also true that the rape culture evidenced in advertisements like that of Chino Latino celebrate male violence in ways that hurt vulnerable men as well.  Rates of rape in the prison system (an institution that targets primarily men) are astronomically high.  Victimization is tied to severe emotional trauma, but also increased exposure to disease given the closed nature of the institution.  Gay men and transgender persons are extremely vulnerable to assault, but all men are at high risk within the hyper-masculinized and violent environment of the prison system.

Prison rape is a feminist issue for several reasons. First, male-on-male rape is a product of patriarchy and normalized male entitlement to vulnerable bodies.  Second, prisoners are, in many ways, feminized bodies. That is, they are disempowered persons who have been stripped of their agency and identity.  They generally fall into the “feminine” category within society’s masculine/feminine dichotomy.  They become deindividualized and are controlled and exploited by a capitalist/patriarchal institution (the privatized prison system is highly lucrative, relying on an inmate work force that is paid in pennies and cannot unionize).  Many are mentally ill when arrested or become mentally ill from the incarceration experience.  Imprisoned persons are often forcibly medicated.  Imprisoned persons are also forced to wear demeaning uniforms meant to deindividualize or humiliate them. Many are kept in solitary confinement to prevent meaningful and healthy social interactions or relationships.

Pink Uniforms Jail

Third, the prison system is notoriously racist and classist, meaning that poor persons and persons of color are disproportionately targeted for imprisonment.  Beginning in the 1970s, this trend increased significantly after the end of legalized slavery and the share-cropping system.  Previous economic forms of enslavement were simply replaced with the for-profit prison system.

Finally, of course, female prisoners experience high levels of rape as well, particularly from male prison staff.  Too often, the experiences of imprisoned persons are written off because these persons are presumed to “get what they deserve.”  This ideology, however, ignores the role of systemic oppression, gross violations of human rights, and the intentional targeting of vulnerable groups.

The Chino Latino advertisement makes light of this horrific system and plays on the rape of vulnerable, deindividualized and feminized bodies to sell the body parts of vulnerable, deindividualized and feminized bodies in the form of “meat.”  Exploiting and consuming the bodies of those who cannot consent is funny . . . and sexy . . .

The sexual politics of Chino Latino food is unmistakable. On their website, you are invited to look at “sexy pictures” and “hot shots” of their food and drinks.  Many of these images display the corpses of Nonhuman Animals in all varieties of dismemberment and display.

Screencap from website that shows a large piece of animal flesh being sliced. Labeled under "Sexy pictures!!" and "Hot shots"The advertisement for their party room (a webpage entitled, “Explore Our Private Parts – It’s Okay to Stare”) proclaims:

We don’t like to brag, but why be coy? For parties and private events, Chino Latino is unusually well-endowed, with five unique spaces.

One suggested use (there was no mention of any female equivalent, such as a bridal shower):

[ . . . ] have us host a bachelor party the groom won’t remember to regret.

In other words, spaces where “meat” is served and consumed are considered male spaces, and the products are framed as feminized and waiting for male penetration.

The consumption of animal bodies is embedded within the patriarchal language and imagery of sexualized entitlement to and domination over feminized bodies, be they imprisoned persons, women, or other animals.  The references to rape and voyeurism denotes the right of persons of privilege to the private and personal spaces of vulnerable persons.  They become objects of resource and enjoyment; their individual agency is obscured and ignored.

The institutionalized and epidemic levels of violence, rape, and death imposed on imprisoned persons (primarily poor persons and persons of color charged with drug offenses), women, and Nonhuman Animals is neither funny nor sexy.  That a billboard like this could be posted at all indicates how ingrained rape culture and patriarchal values have become.  The presence of these messages demonstrates how the public space is, by default, the male space, maintaining a rigid gender/class/race/species stratification system.


References to the sexual politics of meat in this essay are based on the work of Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, The Pornography of Meat, and other vegan feminist titles.