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Tent City Diary, Part 1: 'The First 48 Hours Were Horrible'

Fences At Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City.
Al Macias/KJZZ
editorial | staff
Several layers of fencing stand between the tents and the exterior road at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City in 2012.
MCSO's Tent City in Phoenix is one of the state's most notorious jails. It's also known for being a place that those convicted of DUIs serve time. But what's it really like there? KJZZ gave an audio recorder to one woman — who goes by Alex

who served a sentence there for her second DUI, a "super extreme" DUI, meaning her Blood Alcohol Content was 0.2 or higher. Alex was on work release, which means she went to jail at night and on the weekends and was let out to go to work during the week. She recorded entries as she was on her way in and out of jail. Here's the first part of her own account of her time there.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story may not be appropriate for all audiences.

HEAR MORE: Complete 'Tent City Diary' Series

I don’t really know if this was my rock bottom, but what I can tell you is my drinking got significantly worse after my DUI.

Night drinking turned into day drinking, turned into drinks before work, turned into being a mess and blacking out all the time. And every day I woke up and I felt like s---. And I just, you know, but I couldn’t stop. I just couldn’t stop. I wanted to numb myself from the tents, and I wanted to numb myself from the thought of jail and, you know, everything that I had experienced up until that point.

I was terrified, to be completely honest.

Leading up to my surrendering, I was drinking every night. I drank the night before I went in, and I detoxed in jail for five days — five days. The first 48 hours were horrible. But the worst part about surrendering was having to lie about my entire medical history to the intake nurse.

So, they ask you things like: Have you ever suffered from mental illness? Have you ever tried to commit suicide? Are you on any medication for mental illness? You know, so on and so forth. I lied about everything. No, no, no, no, no.

The first weekend in wasn’t awful because I found a way to sneak my pills in. And I still do at this point. I mean I have 16 days left, and I have a nice little pocket in my pants that the detention officers haven’t quite discovered yet.

I was still detoxing in jail every night. I hadn’t eaten and when I did try and eat, I would vomit or have exploding diarrhea, regardless of what it was — even if it was a soda cracker. It was awful. So, needless to say, I’ve lost 15 pounds in the first 17 days that I’ve been there. But I think that also comes with not drinking a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon every single night.

My first weekend in, I was awoken by banging. And I had no idea what that banging noise was. So, I asked one of my bunkmates, “Hey, what is that?” And they said, “Oh! Well, the guys in the Towers Jail — they overlook the girls’ side of the tents.”

“What do you mean, the guys in the Towers Jail?” I said. And she pointed. And sure enough, the second story of the Towers Jail faces directly into the female side of Tent City.


So, they bang. They bang, and they hold up signs that read, “Flash.” Guys definitely stand at the window and masturbate when girls walk by. And it’s completely appalling and it’s upsetting.

Time really doesn’t exist when you’re in jail. I mean, they let you have a clock. They let you have a watch. But it just seems like days take forever when you’re in there.

PART 2: Tent City Diary: 'These People Are Good People'

PART 3: Tent City Diary: 'It's Kind Of Like A Different Hangover'

PART 4: Tent City Diary: 'I’m Only On My Way Up Now'

Photos: Inside MCSO's Tent City

Sarah Ventre produces KJZZ’s two-hour daily program, The Show. Prior to working at KJZZ, she was a producer and editor at NPR headquarters in Washington for a number of shows, desks, podcasts and the national newscast. Her reporting ranges from understanding the relationship between faith, culture, and community among those who have left the FLDS church, to political implications of world music showcases at SXSW. Ventre’s work has been featured on Weekend Edition, Weekend All Things Considered, and on member station WAMU. Ventre also freelances for the Phoenix New Times, Bitch magazine, and several other publications. Ventre grew up in the Valley and is a founder of the nonprofit organization Girls Rock! Phoenix, which puts on a rock ’n’ roll camp for girls, trans, and gender nonconforming youths every summer. She also participates in live storytelling events, and occasionally performance art. Ventre holds a degree in anthropology from Arizona State University. She is always up for a good laugh or a great chile relleno, and is happy to have returned to her hometown to tell stories within her community.