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Tent City Jail Turns 20

Jude Joffe-Block
Tent City has become a symbol of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s law enforcement regime.

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Tent City Jail Turns 20

Tent City Jail Turns 20

Jude Joffe-Block

Temperatures on the bunks can reach up to the 130s in the Phoenix summer.

This week the unorthodox, outdoor jail in Phoenix known as Tent City marks its 20th anniversary.

The facility was set up as a solution to jail overcrowding, and 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 20 years, Tent City has become so famous — and such a spectacle — the jail gets requests from the public for tours several times a week.

Today’s tour is being lead by Sgt. James Lewis, one of the jail’s supervisors. On our way outside to see the tents, Lewis shows us a big cabinet of contraband that guards have collected over the years.

The doors swing open to reveal ropes made out of blankets, a toothbrush with a razor blade inside it, and multiple shanks -- just name a few of the items.

The three women on the tour gasp. They are all in their late 20s. None of them would speak on the record, but they’re here because they saw a reality television special about Tent City and wanted to see it up close.

Setting up canvas tents in the desert was the brainchild of Maricopa County’s six-term Sheriff as a way to ensure he would always have vacancy at his jail.  

There is 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 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,” Lewis said, as he lead the tour to the entrance of a yard housing male inmates.

After some hesitation, the women on the tour venture into 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 was one rationale behind 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,” Arpaio said in a recent interview in his office. “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 1990s, Arpaio hired two Arizona State University criminologists to find out the impact of his brand of punitive policies, like pink underwear, chain gangs and living in tents.

One of the researchers was John Hepburn.

“We tried to look at those in terms of whether or not they made any difference in the likelihood that people who were sent to jail would be return to jail anytime in the near future,” Hepburn said.

Jude Joffe-Block

The collection of contraband confiscated at Tent City.

The results surprised him.

They showed that Arpaio’s policies made no difference in whether or not an inmate returned to jail — inmates who were jailed both before and after the change in policies had a recidivism rate of just over 60 percent.

Meanwhile, Hepburn said, national trends in corrections have moved away from tough punishment regimes like inmate bootcamps. These days, some corrections consultants even point to Tent City as an example of what not to do.

“This is a failed experiment,” said attorney Michael Manning.

Manning has 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. Manning said Tent City allows too many inmates — some of them violent — to be in close quarters with too few guards to supervise. 

“It is too dangerous. Too inhumane. It violates fundamental constitutional principles,” Manning said.

In Manning’s litigation against the county, he discovered some expert consultants the Sheriff hired several years ago who recommended shutting down Tent City.

Arpaio disregarded the idea then, and said 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,” Arpaio said. “They are not going anywhere, so if I survive 20, and it is a program that survived, why should I change it?"

That attitude doesn't surprise Arpaio's critics. After all, Tent City has been a public relations success that has helped the Sheriff gain international fame, and win re-election over and over again.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.