ANGELA LE
White Tanks Cemetery

When there’s no one to care, chain gangs bury the poor and the unknown of Maricopa County in a desolate cemetery half an hour west of Phoenix

By Angela Le

Half an hour west of Phoenix, a chain-link fence encircles a desolate gravel lot. The sign out front says “Sheriff’s Chain Gang at Work.” Inside are hundreds of rows of coaster-size brass markers engraved with real names or simply Jane Doe or John Doe.

This is White Tanks Cemetery, the indigent burial site where Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s chain gangs bury more than 300 bodies a year. Since 1994, the site has received more than 2,984 bodies, including babies.

There are no trees or grass or a sense that anyone comes to visit—other than a few scattered artificial flowers and a small American flag and Teddy bear resting next to the only headstone. 

White Tanks Cemetery is funded by Maricopa County taxpayers. “Therefore, every expense is either standard or very minimal,” said Roger Coventry, a deputy of the Maricopa County public fiduciary. The public fiduciary determines who is considered indigent.

Burial by a chain gang

Angela Le
A chain gang prisoner prays at a burial in White Tanks Cemetery.

Toward the back of the lot, 15 women work together to lift a blue casket out of a van and prepare it for burial. They wear military boots and black-and-white striped shirts and pants with a pink shirt underneath. This is the only female chain gang in the country.

“It made me sad when I helped lower the body in the grave and saw there was no one here for him and wondered what he did that would have led to this,” said Bernita Bentley. She volunteered for the chain gang to get out of the “hole” (prison lockdown). “It made me think of my family and if something like that would ever happen to them.”

This ceremony was for James Bell, who had died of coronary artery disease. He was buried in the cemetery because no family members claimed his body.
A chaplain recited the 23rd Psalm 23 and sang “Amazing Grace” with the chain gang members, interrupted every few minutes as squads of five jets from Luke Air Force Base flew over. “I don’t even notice the jets any more,” said Kevin Blair of the Maricopa County’s facilities management.

Representing the deceased

Branden Eastwood
Male chain gang members represent the family as they lower a casket.

Blair and his staff used to bury the bodies until the chain gang took over 18 years ago. “The services have become less significant, and we [staff from facilities management] became indifferent when the bodies were buried,” he said. Blair and his staff still come to the burial services every Thursday.
The chain gang members represent the deceased’s family and friends. Malantha Sanchez called this an honor. “When you’re a child of God, you can represent anybody. They are like my brother or sister.”

Sanchez and the 14 other women volunteered for the burial services by joining the chain gang. “The chain gang is a 30-day program for those who misbehaved in jail or violated parole,” said Officer Nancy Hernandez.
Hernandez carried a gun, taser and handcuffs “just in case one of the inmates tries to run away.” That hadn’t happened yet.

Sanchez said the program has made a difference in her life. “The chain gang will change a person with a bad attitude to someone who wants to do something good,” she said. “There’s a lot of respect and discipline in the chain gang program, and if I had to come back, I would do the program again.”

Inmate Alisa Jackson felt the same way. “It’s a way for us to straighten out our lives and make sure we don’t get in trouble again.”

Burying the poor and unknown

Angela Le
A round brass marker is the only way for a family to identify a grave.

Families who want to be considered for the indigent burial program can send a referral to the public fiduciary. “For a person to be eligible for the program, their assets and income, including the next of kin, must both meet poverty guidelines,” Coventry said.

The two people in charge of the program try to make the determination within five days. “It’s a lot of pressure,” Coventry said,

The family has to provide proof of income, such as rent or mortgage receipts. Of the 900-plus referrals each year, the county accepts about 300 cases.

The public fiduciary also takes responsibility for unidentified bodies found in Maricopa County and assigns them to certain funeral homes. “Before we take an unidentified body’s case, we want to explore all of our tools of finding that person’s family through investigations and using a successful online search tool called Accurint.com,” Coventry said. “Ever since we have been using this site, we have increased the number of family members we were able to find.”

Since the county doesn’t want to spend a lot of taxpayer money, it provides only the bare minimum for burials. Although more expensive, the county decided to do burials rather than cremations because of liability for any fault that might occur. “Typically people don’t sue for a burial,” Coventry said, “but if there’s a problem, then we can do disinterment and other arrangements can be made. The families can authorize a cremation if they want to.”

When there was no one

Angela Le
Sister Mary Ruth Dittman is one of the few who pray at a child’s grave.

Sister Mary Ruth Dittman of Phoenix has been coming to the burial services in the desolate gravel lot every Thursday since 1991. “I was expecting lush green grass,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

While reading the obituaries one day, she noticed the name of a 13-month-old baby. “[I] thought it was a baby I had cared for once at one of the hospitals I volunteered at,” Sister Ruth said. “I found out where the funeral was and attended.”

The baby’s father was there. “He said he was making dinner and gave his son a hot dog and the baby choked. He said, ‘I should have never given him that hot dog.’ It was sad when he tried to carry the casket too, but they wouldn’t let him.”

Every Thanksgiving, Michael Santoro holds a candlelight vigil with other volunteers from André House, a Phoenix ministry for the homeless and poor. “We pray for those who have died in the last year and place flowers over their graves,” Santoro said. “We believe there are three deaths—the death of the body, the soul and then the memory. We want to do this candlelight vigil to preserve the last death … the memory.”

People who care

It took all 14 women to lower James Bell’s casket. The chaplain sprinkled holy water on the casket while a woman at either end of the grave threw dirt on the casket.

After Bell’s service, the female chain gang prepared for the next five burials. The chaplain flipped back the pages in the Bible to the 23rd Psalm.

Reach the reporter at angela.h.le@gmail.com

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