LeeAnn Dobbs was framed. The 15-year-old Ironwood High School student showed up at Tent City to do a story about Sheriff Joe Arpaio's SMART Tents program for the school's television news show (note to oldsters: high schools have their own TV networks now) and ended up in the slammer. SMART, which stands for Shocking Mainstream Adolescents into Resisting Temptation, exposes naughty teens to the rigors of a night in Tent City, where they're forced to wear ugly jumpsuits and eat yucky sack lunches. But this ersatz correctional facility doesn't allow news cameras, and so, in order to file her story, Dobbs had to become a teen inmate in one of Arpaio's moldy old tents. She swears she's never going back.
New Times: How'd you end up tossed into Tent City?
LeeAnn Dobbs: I'm part of Teen Talk, which is like a show about real-life situations that happen to kids. I thought it would be cool to go to Tent City and show the kids at Ironwood what that was like. I went there to film the program, and ended up being in it. Which was, like, ew!
NT: You were tricked?
Dobbs: Well, yes. We showed up with our film equipment, and Sheriff Arpaio's people said, "You can't be filming the program, but you can be in it." They made our adviser take all the film equipment and lock it in her car. Then we got to Tent City, and they pulled out all the Ironwood kids except one boy and one girl, and that was me. Then they let us film part of our stay.
NT: You were hornswoggled. But you're a good girl!
Dobbs: I am. And now I know how the other half lives. It was a miscommunication on my teacher's part that got me in there, but it was cool. It was an experience, let me tell you.
NT: What happened?
Dobbs: We got lined up out front, and we had to stand with our nose on the back of the head of the person in front of us. That was weird. Then we had to be checked to make sure our shoes were tied properly, and we had to take off all our jewelry so we couldn't use it to hurt anyone once we were in there. Then they handed us our outfits, which were really bad. They were, like, striped, and on the back it said "Sheriff's Inmate."
NT: How do you look in horizontal stripes?
Dobbs: Bad. Jail outfits are very baggy. The real inmates had jumpers that were more, like, fitted. And we had to wear the pink boxers. This was bad. We wore them right over our street clothes.
NT: Not exactly runway material.
Dobbs: No. Then they walked us down through where the eating rooms were, and we ate a Sheriff Joe Arpaio meal. Actually, most of us just kind of moved the food around, and kind of picked at it. It was kind of, I don't know. Not what you'd think of as dinner, I guess.
NT: There was no salad course, I'm guessing.
Dobbs: Uh, no. It was stuff to make a turkey and cheese sandwich with. There were two plums, and some kind of orange-colored drink, and a package of these sort of vending machine crackers. It was, I don't know. You know? If you were really hungry, it might be good. Like if you were dying of starvation.
NT: But you knew you were only in there for a night, so all of this was more like being in a play?
Dobbs: To get the message through to the kids, the prison people treated us all like criminals. I was treated like a bad kid, just like the real bad kids who were going through the program. I started to sort of believe I'd done something awful that needed to be punished. But some of the kids' parents found them doing drugs, so they deserved to be there. I was sort of shocked because I went there just to film this thing and ended up being thrown into it. I wasn't planning to do, like, a reality show where I was there for 20 hours.
NT: Were you scared?
Dobbs: No, because I behaved. If you behaved, the prison people sort of left you alone. But some of the bad kids were getting mouthy. It was really awful. I can't imagine being in there for, like, a week. And I would never want to go to jail. You had to be escorted to the bathroom, you had to keep your hands visible all the time. There was no freedom.
NT: Well, just make sure you don't get caught selling heroin at lunch hour.
Dobbs: I'm not like that. I told you, I'm a good kid. Some of the other kids were there with a church group, and there were some there who got a class credit if they went through the Tent City program.
NT: What the heck kind of class is that?
Dobbs: I have no idea. Maybe they just wanted to know what it's like to be in jail. Which is awful, believe me. We were thrown in with kids who'd done drugs and got caught, or stolen something, or whatever. So many kids think that jail is no big deal, that it's nothing. Most of the kids there, jail didn't even faze them.
NT: Maybe because they knew they were going home in a couple hours.
Dobbs: Yeah. It's kind of hard to trick kids these days. I think this program works for kids, but it depends on their mindset. It really convinced me that I don't want to do anything that would send me to jail.
NT: Teens are naughtier today than when I was young.
Dobbs: Probably not. Kids today have more knowledge of bad things, is the deal. They have more access to bad things. We're more sophisticated, and we know about more ways to be bad. That's all.
NT: Is it because of all the slutty teen girl role models you're exposed to, like Britney and Christina?
Dobbs: I wouldn't call Christina Aguilera slutty. She's acting; it's a persona.
NT: What about Britney?
Dobbs: I don't think she's a slut, either. I think it's pretty gross that she smokes, though.
NT: Did you make any friends in prison?
Dobbs: Uh, not that I'd keep in touch with, no. I met some sentenced juvenile girls, that was pretty sobering. One of the girls was fried from drugs, and she'd already been to jail 14 times. This time she was in for stabbing someone in the back in the shower. There was a 17-year-old girl who started out ditching school, and then she was doing drugs, and now she's in jail. She was in there for robbery, she was serving a couple of months. Now, that may not seem like a big deal, but when you're in jail, a couple months is a long time.
NT: Did you get to meet Sheriff Arpaio?
Dobbs: Oh, yeah! He came into our cell with some of his officers, and talked to us about why we were in jail. He was pretty funny.
NT: He certainly is. I read that he does surprise searches as part of this program.
Dobbs: Yeah, after we went to sleep. I got the top bunk, which was very uncomfortable. Right after we fell asleep, they brought in the dogs to do a fake search. We had to line up and put our hands on our heads and stare at the wall while the dogs searched the tents.
NT: What did they find?
Dobbs: They found some lady's car keys.
NT: Any advice to teens about staying on the straight and narrow?
Dobbs: Well, don't hang out with big partyers, because if you do, you wind up at one of those parties where the police show up. Stay with all-American kids. We don't have the kind of goals that lead you to prison.
NT: What goals are those?
Dobbs: I want to go to ASU and get an MBA. I'm going to be the CEO of my own major corporation.
NT: Careful. CEOs of major corporations sometimes wind up in jail. What kind of company will you own?
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Dobbs: Um, maybe a makeup company. Or else a fashion magazine, and I'd be the editor.
NT: I guess the moral to the story is be good, and you won't end up in pink underwear.
Dobbs: And an ugly striped jumper! One girl said that the reason she was in jail was because she was fried on drugs and she let her boyfriend talk her into doing robberies and stuff. So, really, the moral is don't do drugs and don't listen to your boyfriend! Because that combination can really mess you up.