REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM
At 7:35 a.m., after eating their breakfast rations—inedible-looking low-grade salami, bologna, ham, and turkey sandwiches, a cracker, some milk, and a small piece of fruit—the fifteen women of the Maricopa County Jail chain gang shuffle off the bus, tethered in groups of five. It's a routine they're used to: the bus, emblazoned with the words “Sheriff's Chain Gang,” presumably so that drivers on the interstate know exactly what their sheriff is spending their money on, brings them the twenty miles west on I-10 from the main jail in Phoenix several times a month. Slowly, they head toward the blue portable toilet at the edge of the county's unromantically named White Tanks cemetery for paupers.
One at a time, the women step into the plastic room, the chain trailing off their ankle and through the door, keeping it from fully closing. The rest of the crew stand clustered a couple feet back; every bodily noise emanating from the chamber is audible. “If we start thinking they're taking too long,” explains Officer J. C. Hale, the ever jovial supervisor of the female chain gang, who spent the breakfast hour telling his charges about his recent trip to Mexico, “we say, 'Come on! Hurry up!' ”
Inside, someone has etched into the plastic toilet-paper holder a lone cry of protest: “Fuck off.” There doesn't seem to be much else to say.
Fifteen minutes after the crapping-and-pissing expedition began, the prisoners are lined up in three columns of five, and begin their slow march around the chain-link fence perimeter of the cemetery's arid expanse. At 8:07 they arrive at the far corner to greet the contents of the green minivan, driven by a large African American mortician, and another hearse, which has just pulled up. Inside the vehicles are stacked, like boxes of produce, four shapeless blue chipboard coffins. The women stand still, facing a row of open graves cut into the dry, orange-brown Arizona earth. Behind them are four huge concrete