Tent City, Maricopa County’s infamous outdoor jail, quietly closed for business this weekend. Its remaining inmates were taken from the 7-acre compound in southwest Phoenix late Saturday night and checked into the county’s Durango Jail a few blocks away.
Tent City was the brainchild of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who opened it in 1993 to combat overcrowding in brick-and-mortar facilities.
The tents have drawn controversy since their inception. Critics alleged cruel conditions, especially during Phoenix’s scorching summers; supporters cheered incarceration there as fitting punishment for the county’s lawbreakers.
Inmates sweltered in their pink underwear. Republican politicians, including four presidential candidates, would tour the facilities, gunning for Arpaio’s endorsement. The tents remained standing even after jail populations dwindled in recent years, and Arpaio often pointed to them to burnish his “tough-on-crime” image.
In a news release last year, Arpaio said he hoped Tent City would reach its 25th anniversary. It was 10 months shy.
For Sheriff Paul Penzone, who ousted Arpaio in last November’s election, closing Tent City was one of the first orders of business. Penzone announced the facility’s closing in April, calling the tents a “circus” rather than a crime deterrent.
Though he campaigned as a Democrat, Penzone vowed to remove politics from the embattled agency and to base decisions on public safety and financial prudence.
Tent City cost taxpayers about $8.6 million last year to remain open. Officials in April said closing the facility would save approximately $4.5 million annually.
Penzone said in April that Tent City would be phased out over the next six months rather than shuttering on a firm date. This, he said, allowed time for the agency to determine where and how to house inmates on work release conditions, who are freed during work or school hours.
“This is another step in the stabilization of this office and its operations,” Penzone said Monday. “My focus is to find more effective ways to reduce recidivism while creating a safe environment for our employees.”
Reached Monday evening, Arpaio said his successor can “do what he wants.”
“It’s been a great program and I stick by it,” Arpaio said. “(But) he’s the sheriff now.”
By: Megan Cassidy, The Republic
Published: October 12, 2017