As It Happens

Arizona shuts down Joe Arpaio's 'degrading' outdoor Tent City jail

Arizona's controversial "Tent City" jail — an outdoor prison in the middle of the desert created by former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio — is closing after nearly 25 years.
Prisoners dressed in striped inmate uniforms walk under the hot Arizona sun at tent city jail opened near Phoenix by then-Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Jean-Loup Sense/AFP/Getty Images)

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There's a new sheriff in town in Maricopa County, Ariz.

Longtime As It Happens listeners may remember the old boss, Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who called himself "America's toughest sheriff."

In 1993, Arpaio opened an outdoor jail in the middle of the desert, called "Tent City," where the inmates were subjected to all manner of humiliations meant to deter them from committing further crimes. 

But the new sheriff, Paul Penzone, takes a different view of crime and punishment. On Tuesday, he announced that Tent City is closing down.

Penzone made that decision on the recommendation of a committee he set up to study the jail, chaired by former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods.

Woods spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why he believes decision to close the controversial jail is long overdue.

Carol Off: Mr. Woods, why did you call for this Tent City jail to be closed down?

Grant Woods: The Tent City jail was supposed to be temporary in the first place. It was put up in response to an excess of inmates in 1993. I think the previous sheriff used it for his own political grandstanding over the years to try to prove that he was really tough on crime and tough on prisoners. The reality is that it wasn't so tough on crime or prisoners. 
Joe Arpaio, who claimed to be "the toughest sheriff in the United States," sits behind his desk next to a sign for the Tent City prison camp with a vacancy sign. (Jena-Loup Sense/AFP/Getty Images)

CO: What do you mean — the prisoners liked it?

GW: The prisoners actually liked being there. They were there pretty much by choice. Once they were assigned there, if they wanted to leave and go back to a regular jail facility, all they had to do was raise their hand and they'd be sent back to one.

The reason they liked it is because they'd just rather be outdoors. Most of the year, it's pretty nice in Arizona. What about the summer when it's really hot? Well, that was the tradeoff. It wasn't great, but they have a day room there that was air-conditioned. They would go in there for hours at a time.

That idea that this was somehow a deterrent or that it would help on recidivism proved to be untrue. There's just no evidence of that whatsoever. So that part of it didn't work. It's was an expensive proposition and it just looks bad. We don't like the image. We don't like anything about it, so we're shutting it down. 
Immigrant inmates show off a pair of pink underwear while sitting on a bunk in the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013, in Phoenix, Ariz. (John Moore/Getty Images)

CO: Now sheriff Joe Arpaio opened this jail in 1993. It was his tough-on-crime agenda. He did all kinds of things that were to deter crime. What were the things that he thought would make prisoners not commit crimes because of the conditions in this place?

GW: They were mainly, in my view, political stunts. He would give them really bad food, deprive them of whatever he could deprive them of, dress them in stripes, made them wear pink underwear.

The problem is:

a) It doesn't work — it had no effect on crime.

b) It's demeaning to the people involved and it's demeaning, ultimately, to the community that allows it to be involved.

The people who are in Tent City are low-level offenders. These are not hardcore criminals. I don't think it would be right for them either, but certainly not for the lowest level of person. We're not going to be humiliating people, degrading people, in the name of fighting crime anymore in this state.

Former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to the media in front of his county jail on July 29, 2010, in Phoenix. (John Moore/Getty Images)

CO: Is it true that the meals they were given, they were meatless and described as slop, but the inmates would have to watch the Food Channel while they ate their meals?

GW: Yeah, that's true actually, I think. The food is pretty bad so they are now working on improving that. Again, there's no reason for that. You don't need to put people in conditions like that.

It was even worse than the Food Channel. At some point in time in his jails he would pump in Newt Gingrich tapes, the guy who was the Speaker of the House, spouting very conservative philosophies. So some people thought that might be cruel and unusual punishment to have to hear some politician talk non-stop. 
Undocumented immigrants walk through the Maricopa County Tent City jail to get exercise on April 30, 2010. (John Moore/Getty Images)

CO: How much money will you save by closing the jail?

GW: We think it will save about $4.5 million [US] a year by closing Tent City. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Grant Woods.

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