Why Two Decades of Tent City Is Enough

PHOTO: tent

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Tent City is an open-air jail in Phoenix, Arizona, where more than 2,000 inmates are housed in repurposed military tents. Under the supervision of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the inmates wear cartoonish black and white striped uniforms and pink underwear.

The sweltering jail -- temperatures can reach 125 degrees -- stands at the center of the Arpaio legend, and it will celebrate its 20th anniversary this August.

Fans of the sheriff applaud the spartan conditions, a victory against wasted tax dollars and a symbol of a no-nonsense approach to crime.

"Tent city is by far the best idea ANY sheriff anywhere has come up with...GO JOE!!!" said one commenter on a recent Facebook photo set of the facility. "Keep up the GREAT work we are Winning the war," wrote another.

For the man Rolling Stone once described as "an unabashed carnival barker," Tent City is a set piece that shows off his values as a law enforcement chief. Arpaio offers constant tours of the jail (business casual dress is appropriate, according to the website) and the sheriff celebrates the anniversary of the facility every year.

There are lots of reasons to oppose the jail, though. The pink underwear, for example, is ostensibly chosen because it's less likely to get stolen by departing inmates. But a federal judge in an ongoing case found that the colored boxers appeared to be punishment without legal justification.

And there's the food, valued between 15 and 40 cents per meal. Arpaio touts that it's the cheapest among jails in the country, but bad food was one of the complaints that led to a 400-inmate riot in the facility in 1996.

In Tent City, however, the most obvious point of contention is that inmates are subjected to extraordinarily high temperatures. For example, the inside of the tents reached 138 degrees during one heatwave in July 2003, leading the sheriff to give those incarcerated a chance to strip down to their pink underwear. More recently, inmates got ice cream and icy towels to combat soaring temperatures.

But Arpaio doesn't think the roasting weather is unfair to those in his jails, and he's often cited what military personnel need to endure.

"It's 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn't commit any crimes, so shut your mouths," Arpaio reportedly said during the 2003 heatwave.

But that statement gets at the single biggest problem with Tent City.

The facility is a jail. Most of the people held there are awaiting trial, or people serving short sentences, typically less than a year. According to Maricopa officials, "dangerous or predatory individuals are not placed there."

Most people there are low-level criminals, or not yet convicted. Under the law, jails should not be punitive, but Tent City clearly comes across that way.

In Arpaio's 2008 autobiography, he said that "jails are intended to be punishment." He's since retracted that statement, but it's served as an argument against his jails in a series of wrongful death lawsuits that have led to $24 million in legal costs for the county.

Arpaio clarified his current stance in an email to Fusion in October 2012. "The vast majority of our population is pre-trial," Arpaio wrote. "Punishment is post-conviction only."

But much about Tent City gives the impression that it's meant for punishment. And those punishments appear to come down disproportionately upon Hispanic inmates.

A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice found "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos" in Maricopa jails, citing guards who used racial slurs and punishments against inmates who didn't speak English.

Claims of racial profiling and discrimination go beyond Arpaio's jails, too. In May, a federal judge ruled that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office systematically used racial profiling against Latinos, and the sheriff was ordered to stop using Hispanic ancestry in law enforcement decisions.

On its face, Arpaio's defense of the tents makes sense -- the men and women serving in the military need to survive in similar conditions, and criminals don't deserve anything better.

But when you look more closely, the problem becomes clearer. All people, even prisoners, deserve basic respect and human dignity. But Tent City in particular is a jail -- you might be there because you were charged with a crime you didn't commit. Or you might be there for a low-level crime, like driving under the influence.

To make a place like that into your own personal "concentration camp," as Arpaio has done (his words), is more for self-promotion than for anything related to criminal justice.

As Arpaio said in October 2012, just before his sixth straight electoral victory, the tents, pink underwear and cheap food all make for a good sales pitch to the public.

"I can get elected on pink underwear," the sheriff said. "I've done it five times."

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