Committee To Make Recommendation For MCSO On Future Of Tent City

Published: Monday, March 13, 2017 - 7:12am
Updated: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 4:43pm

(Photo by Al Macias - KJZZ)
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio addresses the media on the 19th anniversar​y of Tent City in 2012.
(Graphic by Jimmy Jenkins)
The Maricopa County Jails were overcrowded when Tent City was built in 1993. Now, most of them are less then 3/4 full.
(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins)
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office will no longer be dying their underwear pink

Four hundred pounds of pink underwear are tumbling around and around in a massive industrial washing machine. It’s a daily sight in the laundry facility at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

The pink underwear mandate was a pet project of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It was part of a criminal justice legacy based on punishment and deterrence. But like the dye in his infamous underpants, Arpaio’s legacy is fading.

Newly elected Sheriff Paul Penzone has ordered the underwear go back to white. And he’s taking on Sheriff Arpaio’s most controversial project as well: the Tent City Jail.

Earlier this year, Penzone put together a committee to answer one basic question about the jail: "Does it provide us with what we need for the best interest to detain individuals and serve this public and the mission of this organization?" Penzone asked.

"Tough On Crime"

The former Sheriff liked to show off the jail whenever he could. Arpaio would often give media tours of the jail. In one instance in 2016, the Sheriff played host to animal advocate Pamela Anderson who approved of Arpaio’s meatless meal program.

But despite the occasional star-sighting, the jail can be a pretty unpleasant place. Actually, that’s probably an understatement.

Tanzia Reynolds has been in the tents for past 8 months. "It's Hell," she said, when asked to describe the conditions. Reynolds said in the Spring it’s not so bad. But temperatures are freezing in the winter and the summers border on sadism. “It was 130 degrees inside the tent," Reynolds said of her summer in Tent City. "A girl had a thermometer on her clock. You lay there literally in your own sweat. So, it’s miserable, the food is bad.”

But Sheriff Arpaio said that’s the point. In his view, Jail is supposed to suck. His Machiavellian approach earned him the title of "America’s Toughest Sheriff. "I’m proud of that name," the former Sheriff said in a recent interview. "Do you want to be called ‘America’s nicest Sheriff?’”

Arpaio said his department developed some programs designed to help inmates over the years, but rehabilitation was never really his main focus. “I’m not social worker," Arpaio said, "I’m a cop.”

A Legacy Of Retribution

Arizona State University criminology professor John Hepburn said Arpaio’s career arc mirrors larger patterns of criminal justice policy throughout the country.

"For the last 20 years, we have focused more heavily on deterrence and retribution than on rehabilitation or treatment," Hepburn said. He points out that the Sheriff's message was very popular for decades. "Joe Arpaio was elected and re-elected and re-elected and re-elected," Hepburn said. "So the people wanted him to be harsh. We the taxpayers, we the legislators, we the governors want our pound of flesh.”

Hepburn was brought in by Arpaio to study the effects of the sheriff’s policies on recidivism in 2000. He followed inmates that went through MCSO jails two years before Arpaio took office and two years after. "We found that there was absolutely no difference between the two groups,” Hepburn said.

Sixty percent of the inmates in both groups ended up back in jail within 2 years. Having found no impact on recidivism, Hepburn looked at the deterrent effect. He asked more than 300 inmates what they actually thought about the tents.

“The inmates didn’t see these as punitive at all," Hepburn said. "They saw them as actually an opportunity.” With the exception of the summer months, most inmates said they actually preferred the fresh air and the ability to move freely through the tents.

Will The Tents Come Down?

Arpaio’s focus on punishment was seen by many as misplaced and out of date. Eric Balaban is senior staff counsel with the ACLU national prison project. He said jails should focus on holding inmates safely for the term of their sentence, which usually isn’t that long.

“You’re ill serving the long-term goal of making sure these men and women can re-enter society successfully and stay out of jail if you humiliate and punish them while they’re jailed,” Balaban said.

Former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods is the chairman of the committee that will advise Sheriff Penzone on what to do with Tent City. “Ethically and morally I think we need, we have to make sure that people are punished but they’re not mistreated," Woods said.

He said a recent report on recidivism confirms the jail still has no deterrent effect. It does, however, cost a lot of money.

According to the Sheriff's Office, the operating cost for Tent City Jail for fiscal year 2017 is $8,748,254. Headcount numbers from February of 2017 show the jail is less half full. 

Woods and his committee could make a recommendation by Monday as to whether to close the tents, keep them open or modify them in some way. At that point the fate of Tent City Jail and its legacy will be in the hands of Sheriff Penzone.

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