For all the worksite raids, immigration sweeps and animal-cruelty cases that have made Sheriff Joe Arpaio one of the most notorious and popular figures in Arizona history, it likely will be a compound of military-style tents housing more than 1,000 inmates that is his lasting legacy.
The compound in southwest Phoenix has housed more than 500,000 people — including a handful of celebrities and corporate executives in addition to more common criminals – since it opened in the summer of 1993. Arpaio commemorated its 18th year in operation with a “celebration” Aug. 3, though few who live there likely wanted to join the party.
“This is hard time,” said Corrine Welling, a jail inmate who has also served time in the state Department of Corrections’ tents.
“You get doors on those tents, you get cable, you get AC,” Welling said of the state facilities. Arpaio’s facilities are the bare minimum — including no air-conditioning.
“When we’re here, it’s a deterrent and we say we’re not going to come back, but everyone’s got their own thing on the outside,” Welling said. “You get wrapped up in it again, and you don’t think about this.”
In many ways, the compound is the ultimate reflection of Arpaio, the controversial five-term county sheriff who is often accused of valuing publicity more than prudent law-enforcement policy. Tent City was a fresh idea when first proposed, bringing with it a combination of austerity and retribution that appealed to Arpaio’s supporters. It has since survived riots, inmate deaths, lawsuits and legal challenges as it has come to epitomize Arpaio.
Some of the sheriff’s critics can’t believe the tent compound is still around, much like the sheriff himself.
“It surprises me it’s lasted as long as it has. It’s not delivered any of its promises except for publicity,” said Phoenix attorney Mike Manning, who has fought numerous legal battles with the Sheriff’s Office and won millions in settlements and jury verdicts for former inmates.
“When I’ve said these types of things before Arpaio is quick to say that I and others want to coddle criminals. The issue isn’t that at all. In our country the constitutional and the humane punishment of criminals is to deny them their freedom, imprison them and try to rehabilitate them,” Manning said. “There is no entity in our country where it’s permitted to punish people by unnecessarily creating pain, and he goes out of his way to unnecessarily create pain and he relishes it. He advertises it. He boasts about it.”
The facility might have drawn praise when it opened, but the concept of housing inmates in tents was not without pitfalls.
Hundreds of inmates rioted at the facility in 1996 after a detention officer sprayed an inmate with pepper spray when the inmate used the restroom without permission. The disturbance went on for five hours and left eight sheriffs employees injured and caused more than $100,000 in damage.
Nearly three years later, a similar scenario unfolded when 200 inmates hurled rocks at officers, lit tents on fire and toppled portable toilets.
Arpaio deemed the second event a “disturbance,” and says today that only two riots more than a decade ago add up to a positive track record.
“With 1.3 million people (who) come through the jails and I’m supposed to run the toughest jail in the universe, and (so then) where are all the riots?” Arpaio asked. “Big deal. That’s a positive thing — only one.”
Whether they were riots or disturbances, the events led to changes in Tent City, said Jack MacIntyre, an Arpaio deputy chief who noted that the deputies installed a portable watch tower and an additional fence, and also increased patrols around the tents.
The inmates who live in the tents have all been sentenced to less than one year in jail for their crimes and must be classified as minimum- or medium-security risks.
Everyone in Tent City has to work either on a chain gang, in one of the jail-support facilities such as the kitchen, or at jobs in the community through work-release and furlough programs. Those who choose not to work are housed in traditional jail cells.
For many, the chance to get outside of jail for a few hours a day is enough motivation to suffer through the hot summer months in the tents, where temperatures can reach 145 degrees underneath the canvas.
Lucas Jones, 37, is in the middle of a four-month sentence in the tents, but he goes to Bartlett Lake twice a week with other inmates as part of a program to build fish habitats, a privilege Jones said he cherishes.
“Just to get on a bus and get out of here first thing in the morning, that’s wonderful,” Jones said.
But with Maricopa County jail populations in the midst of a steep decline – from a high count of more than 10,000 in 2006 to an average population of about 7,500 this year — and the county jail system dotted with vacant cells and mothballed units, the overcrowding that helped launch Tent City has subsided.
Arpaio said the concept of housing inmates in tents still sends a message. He has no intention of moving the inmates to a more climate-controlled environment.
“I’m not going to close the Tent City. Why would I close it?” Arpaio said. “I do know I get a lot of calls from families and people who have served time and they say ‘Thank you, sheriff. I hate the tents.’ That’s music to my ears.”