A Visit to the Infamous Tent City Jail

Jan & I lived in Arizona for five years, leaving for New England some dozen years ago now.

There’s much to admire about the state. It is astonishingly beautiful, at least once one gets outside the limits of the Phoenix metroplex which hunkers over the Valley of the Sun a great lumbering sprawl…

And like Phoenix, a city without charm, and arguably the least sustainable city in the nation, Arizona is haunted by a long history of bizarre politics.

Not long before we arrived they had Governor Evan Mecham, a perennial fringe candidate who garnered enough votes in a three way to squeak into office. And from which office he embarrassed even this state enough to earn impeachment. While there our congressman was J. D. Hayworth, voted by House pages to be both “biggest blowhard” and “dimmest bulb” in the House. Since our time there Arizona has splashed across the headlines with mind numbing regularity for its extreme politics and seriously weird legislation…

But no one on that ever colorful scene is quite as dramatic as Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa country, fourth largest county in the country, with more than three million residents mostly living in Phoenix. He has engaged in an endless succession of questionable practices and publicity stunts. For which he regularly gets re-elected, at this date five times, and counting…

Nothing is more distasteful than how he runs the county jail. He puts the inmates in what has come to be called “Sheriff Joe’s Tent City,” where inmates live under extreme conditions, where the heat in the tents rises to over a hundred and thirty degrees (on July 2nd, 2011, the temperature in Phoenix was 118 and the sheriff admitted, or actually bragged that inside the tents it hit 145 degrees). There are allegations of inmates being served spoiled food. The prisoners are dressed in ways designed to humiliate them. And there are accounts of mistreatment of inmates of color. In 1997 Amnesty International denounced the Tent City as inadequate and inhumane.


Here we are the annual convention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, this time gathered in Phoenix.

Last night we took a visit.

We were there to bear witness.
We also carried some signs. We lit candles. We sang songs. Some of us gave speeches, one or two impressive.

The jail is still there.

No just wishing it away.

And most of us who were there in the heat for an evening know this.

But, we did shine the light once more on this terrible thing.


I hope we’ll keep the light on this disgrace to our country.


I hope somewhere along the line, sooner hopefully than later, the good people of Arizona will finally shut this damnable thing down. Probably it will require they get rid of this man who seems no different than many of the inmates he controls. A human being who commits crimes. And who needs to be stopped.

A small thing.

But like those drops of water that wear down mountains, or how the desert winds slowly reshape the landscape may this damnable tent finally be blown away…

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  • Tom B

    Appalling. One wonders if people like Arpio — and loony Gov. Brewer– are reelected because people are too lazy to learn what their elected officials are actually doing — or because they are too deluded to care.

  • Madhu

    Shocked beyond belief.

  • John Lechem

    Thnx for interesting account (a) The damage and cost to AZ of illegals is extensively documented on the Internet and Media.. (b) AZ has taken the lead in persuading their share of 12 million illegals to leave AZ (they cannot work there..), and freed up their share of 8 million jobs held by illegals; check with local business employees, and waitpersons (All legal res. some w. Master’s degrees) and ask them how they feel.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind James

    Hi John, I don’t quite get the relevance of your comments, which is about a jail. But as you seem interested in the issue of undocumented immigration, I do have thoughts… http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2010/05/what-part-of-illegal-dont-you-understand-a-meditation-on-americas-immigration-debate-the-ocean-of-longing.html

  • Brittney

    I am completely for the tent city jail. Hello people, theyre inmates!! They dont deserve to live an easy life. Yes they should be provided good food and shelter, but they can live in a tent. Its called a fan. The soldiers over seas live in these conditions every day and they do fine. They deserve to have better tents than inmates but they dont and still do their job in full gear. Get over it!

  • http://www.boundlesswayzen.org jamesford

    Fyodor Dostoevsky is said to have said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

  • Franklin

    I totally support tent city. Why should prisoners have the comforts of life when they are suppose to be punished for doing wrong. If we are going to give them privilege, then why lock them up. Being a membe of the military, I know exactly what Brittney is talking about. If our soldiers can do it, what makes these criminals and those who have sympathy for them feel they deserve better?

  • Laura


    First off, I’ve been there this summer for 15 days for a DUI (with work release). I made a mistake and I admit it and I understand it’s jail not a spa and that we needed to be punished and scared straight. But I cannot agree with some practices which to me should only be found in dark ages history books and not in a 21st century jail:

    1. it’s simply too hot at 120-130 degrees (in the shadow) in the Phoenix summer to be forcing people to sit in those tents during the day and even during the night. It was impossible to sleep more than 20 minutes without waking up in a pool of sweat. The fan can’t do anything in that heat. Throughout the two weekends I was forced to spend there (during the week the work release allowed me to avoid the afternoon heat) I was literally scared for my life in those temperatures.

    2. When a storm came the rain was dripping through small holes/cuts in the tents so if you had an upper bunk you would basically be subjected to chinese water torture and by the morning everyone was sleeping in wet sheets and blankets with a pool of water on the floor.

    3. Food is just unedible and I find Arpaio’s bragging that the dogs’ meals in his animal shelter cost $1.5 as opposed to those of inmates who cost only $0.9 absolutely disgusting. There are also lots of rumours that his family own the vending machines from which you need to buy junk food so that your stomach has something in it given that most people just cannot eat the “dinner”.

    4. At intake we were kept for 11 hours without any food or water in a cramped holding cell where we needed to take turns sitting down. I think the intake process drags on for so many hours not because of logistics reasons but as a way to further punish and torture the inmates.

    5. At night there are random very loud calls through the speakers which oftentimes seem to be made only so that we cannot get any proper sleep.

    I’m a professional woman, I work and pay my taxes, I have never done any sort of crime before in my life and now yes, I made a stupid mistake and drove when I shouldn’t have driven and for this I had my vehicle impounded, did jail time, then house arrest with the ankle gps thingy I had to pay for, will have an interlock device in my car for the next 18 months which I pay for and which humiliates me every time I’m in my car, had my license suspended and had to go through countless classes where I was once again humiliated on an ongoing basis and told that I’m basically the lowest scum on earth due to what I did. Isn’t all this enough, why do I also need to be physically tortured by being kept in inhumane dessert heat, being starved, kept in cramped closed holding cells for 10-15 hours at a time and have DOs yell in my face non-stop for two weeks inspite of having been nothing but polite to them at all times and doing my best to follow all the rules and orders they gave? I think this is way too much for what I’ve done and is indeed worthy of a concentration camp as Arpaio proudly calls his tent jail.

    • RaanP

      Look on the bright side Laura, you didn’t kill anyone. You could have, but you didn’t. If all you had to do was spend 15 days in discomfort I would say you dodged a mighty bullet.

      • Susan

        Okay this sounds harsh, but for drinking and driving which kills so many, and not just kills but kills the hearts of the survivors… maybe this type of ‘jail’ is the punishment needed. I don’t drink, however if I did I would certainly re-think drinking and driving!

        • eyemale

          Good friend of mind son was killed by a drunk driver about 10 years ago, just over a year ago I was rear ended by an under aged drunk driver and suffered a broken back and neck and reconstructed knee, ( that driver died on impact) when a life or injury is the result I expect punishment in the form of jail time . ” Jail time” not forms of torture. regardless of opinions that jails or prisons are like hotels they are not , losing one freedom is no small thing, living among criminals , showering , eating and etc isn’t a picnic , limited contact from your kids , spouse and friends is a punishment within it self. I don’t understand the merciless attitude of some Americans these days ,and this is still America…. we don’t chop off hands for shop lifting , and on same note we don’t throw our citizens in 130 degree tents and feed them spoil maggot filled food for the crime of DUI . I heard sheriff Joe bragging that meals for humans was around 40 cents (per) where as the guard dogs food was around 1.40 (per) this is what is amusing and humorous to this man. to quote an expression we can’t allow ” the lunatics to run the asylum” and I do believe sheriff Joe has issues , the scary part is this man has a following . for those people I liked to coin another expression ” May God have mercy on your souls”

  • Do Sky Ski

    Fyodor Dostoevsky is said to have said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

    Empty prisons are possible if you drop a MOAB on those nice prisoners.