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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