Tent City Made Famous By Joe Arpaio To Be Shut Down By New Sheriff (VIDEO)

For over two decades, Sheriff Joe Arpaio ran Maricopa County, Arizona like his own personal fiefdom — terrorizing immigrants with illegal raids, racially profiling residents, ignoring sex crimes, basking in appearances on national talk shows as the nation’s “toughest sheriff,” and adopting punitive measures toward the inmates in his charge. Those measures included housing them in the scorching desert in “tent city” without air conditioning or fans, feeding them green bologna, making them wear pink underwear, and rounding them up to work on chain gangs.

In January, after years of battles with civil rights activists and of settling lawsuits with abused inmates, Arpaio was finally replaced by the electorate. The new sheriff, Paul Penzone, announced on Tuesday that tent city — Arpaio’s favorite way of garnering media attention — will soon be shut down, also.

Penzone, a career law enforcement officer, was never a fan of either Arpaio or tent city. However, he appointed an advisory committee to tell him what to do with the albatross. In making the announcement, Penzone put the jail and its creator in proper perspective, saying:

This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost efficient, and it is not tough on criminals. This facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public. Starting today, that circus ends, and these tents come down.

The closure will save the county an estimated $4.5 million a year. 

In 2002, the Arizona Court of Appeals — in deciding a lawsuit by a tent city prisoner who was brutalized by other inmates — said that security was lacking. Inmates freely roamed the tent city compound, fighting and jeopardizing the safety of others. They easily accessed contraband items like cigarettes, lighters, drugs, knives, and food that were casually tossed over the fences from the outside.

Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who headed the advisory committee recommending the closure, said many inmates actually preferred the relative freedom of tent city to the indoor jails. He concluded:

 The days of Arizona being a place — I hope — where people are humiliated or embarrassed or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizement of anybody or anything are over. They have no place in our community, they don’t reflect our community, and we’re moving on.

Moving on is obviously a good thing, but the fact remains that the Maricopa County electorate ate up Arpaio’s harsh publicity ploys. The majority was in favor of cruelty and humiliation rather than rehabilitation, electing Arpaio to six consecutive terms. It wasn’t until he and his racial profiling were curtailed by federal oversight — and the former sheriff was faced with federal charges of criminal contempt — that Maricopa County residents decided they had had enough and put Penzone in office instead.

While voters could stand some soul-searching about their tolerance and approval of cruelty, their former hero is cooling his heels, awaiting trial in federal court on April 25th. The charges arise from one of many racial profiling cases. There are plenty of progressive Arizonans who, nevertheless, would love to see this outcome: Arpaio sitting in tent city, wearing pink underwear.

Alas, justice will not be that complete, but the Arpaio reign of terror, at least, is at an end. The demolition of tent city is a proper seal to that phase of the county’s history — if only we could believe that Maricopa County has actually become a more humane place.

Watch Jorge Ramos’ coverage of tent city here:

Feature photo, Tent City Jail by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.

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Deborah Montesano

Deborah Montesano is a longtime political activist and blogger. She learned to fight against impossible odds by living for years in Arizona, but recently relocated to the more progressive-friendly city of Portland, Oregon. Find her on Facebook at facebook.com/thepoliticali/ or on Twitter @thepoliticali_1.

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