Calling it a ‘circus,’ Sheriff Joe’s successor shutters Tent City

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Inmates sit at their bunks at Tent City Jail in Maricopa County. (Photo: Charlie Riedel/ Associated Press)

After more than two decades, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious outdoor Tent City Jail will close.

At a press conference Tuesday, the new sheriff in town, Sheriff Paul Penzone, announced the closing of the prison, saying the facility will be shuttered within 60 days.

Arpaio opened the facility after taking office in 1993. The open air facility saw inmates living outdoors during Arizona’s sweltering hot summers, and Arpaio famously had them wear striped prison uniforms and pink underwear.

With an average annual cost of $8.7 million, it had a 2,100 inmate capacity, but only about 800 inmates have been housed there in recent years. Penzone said a methodical review found that Tent City did not deter crime, was not tough on criminals and was not cost efficient.

“That may have been the intent when it was first opened and there was a need,” Penzone said. “But this facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public. Starting today, that circus ends, and these tents come down.”

Calling it a concentration camp, Penzone said Tent City became a preferred location for inmates.

“We’re going to give the criminals what they don’t want, which is detention inside jails in isolated areas, that are more safe for our detention officers,” he said. “And we’re going to give our taxpayers what they do want, which is an organization that runs efficiently.”

Grant Woods, the chair of SPEAR, Sheriff Penzone’s Executive Advisory Review, said inmates wanted to see Tent City stay open.

“I can tell you I talked to probably 100 people out there, men and women. They were 100 percent,” Woods said. “If you talk to the detention officers, they will tell you, yeah, those people out there like it. They want to be there.”

In an interview with the Associated Press after Tuesday’s announcement, Arpaio said inmates found the facility to be harsh, but he wasn’t upset that it was being shut down. “I didn’t do it for legacy,” Arpaio said.

Critics of the facility applauded Penzone’s decision, saying it’s a good start.

“Closing this facility is a good step forward for Maricopa County’s jail system, but there’s still work to do,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. “Maricopa County should use its savings from closing Tent City to improve care for mentally ill detainees, as well as invest in programs and services that treat the root causes of crime.”

Penzone took office on January 1 after beating Arpaio in the November election by a 10 point margin. Arpaio had been the sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county for more than 20 years.