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How Long Was Decision In The Making To Close Tent City?

On Tuesday, we learned that Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone has decided to remove one of the final remaining symbols of his predecessor, Joe Arpaio. Penzone announced he was closing Tent City Jail.

“This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost efficient and it is not tough on criminals. That may have been the intent when it was first opened and there was a need, but this facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public," Penzone said.

KJZZ’s Jimmy Jenkins was there at the press conference on Tuesday and has been covering the new sheriff’s administration.

So how long was this decision in the making?

Penzone put this new committee together in his first 100 days and said they would be in charge of major issues affecting the Sheriff’s Office and almost immediately he tasked them with figuring out what to do with Tent City. Penzone had kind of hinted at removing these legacies of Arpaio during the campaign — the pink underwear, chain gangs, Tent City — and right away as he took office we’ve seen him act on them.

We heard Penzone say the jail was not a crime deterrent; how did they come to that conclusion?

The Sheriff’s Office conducted additional studies on recidivism and deterrence and they showed that if you spent time in Tent City, you were no less likely to commit an offense again and end up back in there, no matter how bad the conditions. But this is pretty old news.

Arizona State University criminology professor John Hepburn actually looked at these same issues, at Arpaio’s request, back in 2000.

Hepburn found Arpaio’s tactics — the whole tough-on-crime thing — it had no impact. He found that recidivism rates are about 60 percent depending on whether you spent time in Tent City or the Fourth Avenue Jail. So you couldn’t justify the harsh climate by saying it kept people out of jail:

“You can justify them — if you feel you want to enact an extra pound of retribution. I mean if you want to increase the hardship of the conditions of confinement. You know if you want to try to in some way embarrass individual by assigning them to wear pink underwear for example, then you certainly can do that but it doesn’t have any beneficial effect on preventing them from coming back in the future,” Hepburn said.

Both the recent SPEAR Committee and Hepburn back in 2000 interviewed hundreds of inmates and they asked: does this do what we wanted it to do,  did you have a bad experience in this type of jail and would you not want to come back. Hepburn said they found that no, for the most part, it's the opposite — the inmates like tents.

"In part because it got them out of the prison - it was more fresh air - more freedom of movement, freedom of communication when you’re out in the tent yard area - so the inmates didn’t see this as punitive at all - they saw them as actually an opportunity," Hepburn said.

Except of course for the summer months.

The tents created this ovenlike effect so even though they were open air, the temperature inside them would somehow climb higher than the outside temperature, sometimes higher than 130 degrees.

Now we are so famous for having this jail — or perhaps infamous because of it — here in Phoenix, do you get the sense this was another attempt to move on from the Arpaio days?

Grant Woods was the chairman of the committee who made the recommendation for the jail. They call it the SPEAR committee. I’ve talked with him several times over the past month or so and he really looks at this from a bigger picture — having a bigger impact on the state of the criminal justice system in our state.

“The days of Arizona being a place I hope where people are humiliated or embarrassed or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizement of anybody or anything are over. They had no place in our community, they didn’t reflect our community and we’re moving on," Woods said.

So when are the tents coming down?

The sheriff said they should be down in about 60 days. They’ll be transferring inmates to the five remaining jails, as well as the detention staff. Nobody is losing a job in the shift. And because of that reorganization the Sheriff’s Office is projecting it can save more than $4.5 million annually. But that’s just a projection, we’ll stay on the story and keep you updated on what kind of effect this actually has on the sheriff’s budget.

Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.