Why Maricopa County's New Sheriff Is Shutting Down Joe Arpaio's Tent City Jail

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An immigrant inmate walks for exercise at the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013, in Phoenix. (John Moore/Getty Images)
An immigrant inmate walks for exercise at the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013, in Phoenix. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The legacy of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio took a hit when his successor announced last week that he's tearing down Arpaio’s infamous Tent City Jail.

The open-air jail was built in 1993 in the desert outside Phoenix, as Arpaio sought an affordable solution to overcrowded jails.

“There was a necessity for it,” says Paul Penzone, who became the county's new sheriff after beating Arpaio by more than 10 points in November's election.

When the Korean War-era tents first went up, Arpaio projected an image to the world that he was getting tough on crime. The sheriff entertained media requests from around the globe, appearing on camera with Tent City inmates who wore the sheriff's signature pink underwear.

The neon motel-vacancy sign that lit up a guard tower was a not-too-subtle reminder that Sheriff Joe was always watching.

In 2015, Arpaio celebrated a landmark — over half a million people had done time in his jail. The tents “are still here for all these critics,” Arpaio told the local Fox News affiliate. “This is our celebration of over half a million people we served.”

But all the attention became a distraction, Penzone says.

“I don't think we should ever be exploitive in law enforcement,” he says. “I don't think we should be a show.”

In recent years, Arpaio’s department has been under close watch by the Justice Department. A federal judge slapped him with a contempt of court charge when Arpaio ignored an order from 2011 to stop carrying out controversial immigration raids.

And in 2013 a judge ruled that Arpaio’s department engaged in racial profiling against Latinos. The former sheriff goes to trial to face the contempt charge later this month. He could spend six months in jail.

With all these legal troubles adding up, the sheriff who seemed unbeatable for more than two decades finally lost an election last fall. And along with it, Arpaio also lost control of his jail.

"I don't think we should ever be exploitive in law enforcement. I don't think we should be a show."

Paul Penzone, the new sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona

Speaking to The Arizona Republic, Arpaio said that Tent City saved the county millions of dollars over the years.

"If I was still the sheriff, those tents would never be gone,” he told the paper.

But the decision is out of Arpaio’s hands now. Penzone says overcrowding is no longer a problem, but Tent City still costs the county more than $8 million a year to operate. Only about one-third of the jail’s beds are being used.

And a review of the jail showed that inmates actually liked living in Tent City. Many had the freedom to get out during the day on a work-furlough program. Some would come back at night with contraband, Penzone says.

“The preference was being outside in the tents,” he says.

And that’s something that former inmates back up.

Phoenix resident Rudy Valenzuela did a couple stints in Tent City — the most recent in 2008 on a robbery charge. He says living outside in the summer heat was stifling. But the winter chill was even worse.

“Me personally, I hated it,” Valenzuela says. “But you did have a lot of inmates that loved it because of all the contraband that was in there. It was just like a big playground.”

This article was originally published on April 10, 2017.

This segment aired on April 10, 2017.


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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



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