In 1993 Joe Arpaio, America’s ‘toughest sheriff’, opened a temporary outdoor jail in Phoenix. After more than two decades, the notorious project is finally closing.
‘Hitler! Hitler!” the prisoners chanted to the TV cameras in protest. It was 4 February 2009. More than 200 Latino men in black-and-white striped uniforms, shackled to each other, were being marched towards an outdoor unit especially for “illegal alien” prisoners in Arizona’s infamous jail, Tent City.
The chants were directed at the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who a few months before had called this outdoor jail close to downtown Phoenix – his own tough-on-crime creation – a “concentration camp” in a speech to political supporters at his local Italian-American club.
When asked about the comment by the Guardian in July, Arpaio brushed it off as a joke. “But even if it was a concentration camp, what difference does it make? I still survived. I still kept getting re-elected,” he said.
The jail survived too. For more than 20 years, Tent City stood within a larger jail compound in an industrial area 10 minutes south of downtown Phoenix. At its peak in the late 1990s, it comprised 82 Korean war-era military tents and housed 1,700 inmates. After 2009, it could hold up to 200 undocumented immigrants.
Despite multiple lawsuits from mistreated former prisoners, mounting public outrage and intense criticism from groups such as Amnesty International, which derided the facility as inhumane, overcrowded and dangerous, the outdoor prison remained open. Even the justice department accused Arpaio of racially profiling Latinos on his patrols and denying prisoners basic human rights in his jails.
But now, like Arpaio’s own legacy, Tent City’s tenure is about to come to an end, leaving many local city residents, civil rights groups and former inmates asking: how did it survive for so long?
The facility was never meant to be open for two decades. It started as a temporary solution to overcrowding in the other Maricopa County jails in August 1993. Arpaio said it cost just $80,000 to erect, using surplus military tents left over from the Korean war.
For months at a time, inmates sentenced for minor crimes slept under the green cloth tents on bunk beds perched on large cement slabs on gravel. In the summer, temperatures inside could reach up to 54C (130F) in the dry Arizona heat. Though there was an indoor air-conditioned unit where detainees could shower and take sick relief from the heat, they weren’t allowed to sleep there.
Inmates were issued with pink underwear, pink sandals and used pink wet towels around their necks to ease the heat. The sheriff said he chose pink so prisoners wouldn’t try to steal them.
Arpaio had styled himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” since the early 1990s, focusing on the drugs trade and criminal gangs. But in 2007, as the border state of Arizona became the main gateway for more than 50% of undocumented migration and fears grew over terrorism, he switched tack, focusing his ire on illegal immigration. Tent City was a particularly divisive project, inspiring admiration from some in the local community, but drawing intense criticism from those who saw it as a place of humiliation.
Proud of his prison experiment, Arpaio frequently invited the media to witness new cohorts of detainees being sent to Tent City, as he did in 2009. He said this was an inexpensive way to get his anti-immigration message out to the public. Justifying his use of tents and razor wire to the TV cameras and journalists, Arpaio argued that the criminals inside – both Americans and foreigners convicted of minor offences, most often drug use, shoplifting and, in some instances, working with false documents – were “more adept at escape”.
Jaime Valdez, 35, spent four months of 2012 in the separate outdoor unit for around 200 undocumented immigrants. For shock value, Arpaio promoted this wing as a place for “illegal aliens”, but in reality it was for anyone awaiting to be turned over to another law-enforcement agency.
“They mocked us for not speaking the language,” Valdez says of the jail guards. “We would talk to them and they ignored us.” Sent there after a drink-driving conviction, he says the inmates of Tent City “knew we were there because we had made a mistake, but it was denigrating”.
On cold days, temperatures reached as low as 5C (41F). Holes torn in the tents let in the wind and rain, drenching the beds. Valdez and other prisoners made ropes to hold the tent canvases together out of black trash bags they had been given as raincoats.
Read the full story at The Guardian.