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BY JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK -- This Saturday an unorthodox, outdoor jail in Phoenix known as Tent City marks its twentieth anniversary. The facility was originally set up as a stopgap solution to jail overcrowding, but has since become a symbol of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s law enforcement regime. And the publicity the jail generates may be one of Arpaio’s biggest legacies.
In the past twenty years, Tent City has become so famous—and such a spectacle – that the jail gets requests from the public for tours several times a week. Today’s tour is being lead by a jail Sergeant, James Lewis. On our way outdoors to see the tents, Lewis shows us a big cabinet.
“This is some of the contraband we’ve collected over the years,” says Lewis.
The doors swing open to reveal ropes made out of blankets, a toothbrush with a razor blade in it, and multiple shanks.
There are three women on today’s tour, all in their late 20s. None of them would speak on the record but they’re here because they saw a TV special on Tent City and wanted to see it up close. Lewis leads us outside.
“On this side we have the males, there’s a fence in the middle where we have the females,” says Lewis.
Setting up tents in the desert to deal with jail overcrowding was the brain-child of Maricopa County’s six-term Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. There’s capacity for more than 2,000 inmates, all of them sentenced to one year or less. They are given pink underwear and work in old fashioned chain gangs. The temperatures on the bunks can get up to the 130s in the summer.
“We can also go out middle of the yard, if you guys want, you just can’t talk to any inmates, and take pictures of any inmates, and it’s at your own risk – so it’s up to you guys how far you want to go,” says Lewis.
After some hesitation, the tour ventures in the yard. The inmates mill around the tents, looking hot and bored. Many are shirtless because of the heat.
This kind of get-tough-on-crime approach on display here at Tent City generally plays well with the public. The women on the tour were impressed. One said she supported the jail because she thought anyone who spent a year at a place this miserable wouldn’t be likely to reoffend. In fact, that rationale was behind Sheriff Arpaio’s decision to put up the tents in his first year of office.
“My theory was they should not live better in the jails,” says Arpaio. “And I want to send a message. Put them in tents. And they are all convicted, they are not innocent. I only put convicted people, as a deterrence effect.”
In the late 90’s, Arpaio hired two Arizona State University criminologists to find out the impact of his brand of punitive policies. One of the researchers was John Hepburn.
“We tried to look at those in terms of whether or not they had made any difference in the likelihood that people who were sent to jail would return to jail anytime in the near future,” says Hepburn.
The results surprised Hepburn. What they found was that Arpaio’s policies made no difference in whether or not an inmate returned to jail. Meanwhile, Hepburn says, national trends in corrections have moved away from tough punishment regimes. These days, some corrections consultants point to Tent City as an example of what not to do.
“This is a failed experiment,” says attorney Michael Manning. He’s sued the Sheriff’s office several times for millions of dollars on behalf of the families of inmates who have died in the county’s various jails. He says Tent City allows too many inmates – some of them with violent histories – to be in close quarters with too few guards to supervise.
“It is too dangerous. Too inhumane. It violates fundamental constitutional principles,” says Manning.
In Manning’s litigation against the county, he discovered that some expert consultants the Sheriff hired several years ago recommended shutting down Tent City. Arpaio ignored the idea then, and says he has no plans to get rid of the tents now.
“And as long as I’m the Sheriff, they are going to be there, they are not going anywhere. So if I survive 20, and it’s a program that survived, why would I change it?”
And why would he? Tent City has been a PR success that’s helped Arpaio gain international fame, and win re-election over and over again.
Photo: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR