Policy: Law

Arizona's Tent City Jail: Where prisoners wear pink underwear, eat meatless meals and swelter in the 120-degree heat

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Immigration,Arizona,PennAve,Tim Mak,Minusextra,Law,Law Enforcement

PHOENIX — In the waiting room of Maricopa County’s Tent City Jail, a weathered screen flashes red, green and yellow words with a euphoric fireworks effect worthy of an early 2000s Word document.

“As of Mar. 2011, [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] detention officers have turned over 39,800 illegal immigrants to immigration authorities for deportation,” the screen reads.

Tent City was built in 1994 at the behest of the county’s showy sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who the previous year had run on a strict law-and-order platform. Local residents, showing flashes of their Wild West, no-nonsense mentality, voted him into office. The county has since grown to become America’s fourth largest.

Shortly after his election, Arpaio traveled to New Mexico to hunt down 70 surplus Korean War military tents and built the outdoor jail he still uses as a rallying cry: “Everything I do is geared to send a message to all the people who live in Maricopa County, that if you do something wrong, you’re going to end up in the tents.”

About 10,000 prisoners are incarcerated in this county of nearly 4 million, and approximately 800-900 of them are placed at Tent City, a figure Arpaio worries is too low. In the corner of the jail, a neon sign blares "vacancy."

“I’m a little concerned that we don’t have that many in there,” he said, claiming the jail had the capacity for 2,400. “I don’t like the trend that’s going on with these judges … just put[ting] the [tracking] bracelet on them and let them go home. … I want them to spent some time in jail.”

Only convicted criminals are placed in the tents, and they have been home to some storied prisoners: Mike Tyson spent time here, as did basketball player Charles Barkley. The prisoners have been convicted of crimes that don’t warrant sentences of more than a year, such as driving under the influence, drug possession, domestic violence and car theft.

The first thing one notices about Tent City is the proliferation of pink. From every bunk hangs a pink towel — “why give them a color they like?” reasoned Arpaio — dotting the otherwise bleak desert landscape with artificial optimism.

Here, resistance to authority takes subtle forms. A prisoner might take two towels when they are only allowed one. But other than a couple fights a week, it rarely gets more serious than that — misbehavior only leads to more hard time, and probably at a stricter, indoor prison.

Upon seeing a tour group, inmates began to pose, flashing gang signs with their hands and asking for pictures to be taken. “These guys must have arthritis or something,” quipped Sgt. Robert Jones, one of the guides. The outdoor jail has become as much an exhibition as it is a law enforcement facility. Visitors can book a tour any time they want, and prison guards give about two tours daily, each numbering four or five individuals.

There are “a lot of snowbirds,” explained Jones, who has worked for six years at the site. “It’s a national draw. In fact, people come from all over the world to see what it’s like.”

Arpaio has built a career on showing off the various indignities he visits upon his prisoners. Last month, he eliminated meat from their meals. He brags about the 120-plus degree summers and revels in the discomfort his prisoners feel.

"I buy a thermometer gadget to prove to the media that I'm not lying," he explained. "There's a trick. If you push that [thermometer] up higher ... you pick up 20 degrees."

Most notably, Arpaio makes inmates wear pink underwear, what he sees as his lifelong achievement.

“Once you’re gone, you’re dead and buried,” Arpaio reflected. “Me, I give them 48 hours to remember me, and they’re going to do it because of the pink underwear.”

On Thursdays, prisoners do indigent burials, laying to rest those who did not have the financial means to be buried anywhere other than the county cemetery. On every other day, prisoners work eight-hour shifts at a food factory.

Arpaio allows the television in the cafeteria to only play ESPN2, the Food Channel (“so they can see the good food they’re missing on the outside,” Jones said) and the Weather Channel (“Joe wants them to see how hot it’s going to be”).

But there is grace in small mercies: In the prison next door, harder criminals convicted of more violent crimes don’t get ESPN2 — they get C-SPAN instead.

About 100 female prisoners live at Tent City. They are segregated and held in their own block, adjacent to the Estrella Women’s Jail, where the infamous Jodi Arias is being held.

Symbolically, in the corner of the jail block, doves have made a nest in a coil of barbed wire that lines the top of the fence. Prisoners haven’t named the doves, according the female inmate who sleeps nearest the nest and feeds the doves scraps.

Why? The birds will be ready to fly in a couple months, and she hopes to be gone with them.

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