Lemons: Sheriff Penzone Shutters Tent City, Which Is One Reason We Elected Him

Penzone on Tuesday, ordering an end to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City
Penzone on Tuesday, ordering an end to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City
Stephen Lemons

In the MCSO's media room this afternoon, reporters were taking bets on what specifically Sheriff Paul Penzone was going to announce during his upcoming news conference.

We all knew the subject of Penzone's presser: former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's en plein air incarceration complex, Tent City, which has been a boondoggle and a menace since it was opened more than 20 years ago.

Also, the journos in attendance were well aware that Penzone had created an advisory board, chaired by former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, essentially to give Penzone political cover to make Tent City disappear.

Still, I doubted that Penzone would pull the trigger on that plan today. I thought, perhaps, in the weasel way of many politicos, Penzone might take the advisory board's recommendation "under review."

But Penzone did not disappoint those of us who voted for him.

Flanked by his command staff on one side, and the members of SPEAR — Sheriff Penzone's Executive Advisory Review — on the other, the sheriff announced that he was shuttering what Arpaio once jokingly referred to as his "concentration camp."

Indeed, Penzone's remarks could have been lifted from the reams of newsprint that New Times has produced over the years, exposing Tent City for what it is: a monument to Arpaio's ego.

"This facility is not a crime deterrent," Penzone intoned. "It is not cost-efficient. It is not tough on criminals. That may have been the intent when it was first opened ... but this facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public.

"Starting today, that circus ends, and these tents come down."

The phrase "circus atmosphere" is dead on. Arpaio constantly milked Tent City for publicity while in office, and in general, the Fourth Estate lapped it up.

Whenever Arpaio tweaked Tent City's (and the rest of the jails') menu — charging for condiments, converting to all vegetarian meals, and so on — reporters covered it as breaking news.

Whenever Arpaio brought in a third-rate celebrity to tour the tents or a politician, it practically became an all-day event, and often made national and sometimes even international headlines.

The PR stunts, most orchestrated by Arpaio's longtime flack, Lisa Allen, were sometimes ridiculous, sometimes barbaric.

They ranged from having an inmate power a TV set with a stationary bike, to having an Elvis impersonator serenade the prisoners, to inane talent competitions such as "Inmate Idol," and, on the racist side, parading Mexican inmates to a special section of the tents surrounded by electrified fence.

Yuks aplenty for the bigots, entertainment for everyone else, and yet more attention for a man that Allen once rightfully referred to as a "media whore."

The reality is Tent City was, over time, a drain on resources, a colossal waste of taxpayer money, which the profligate Arpaio never feared to squander.

As SPEAR chair Grant Woods informed reporters, when Tent City opened in 1993, the alleged purpose was to temporarily reduce overcrowding.

"It had the capacity of having 2,100 inmates," Woods explained at the presser, following Penzone's remarks. "It peaked at 1,700 inmates ... The last several years, it's housed 700 to 800 inmates."

Despite this decline, and the overabundance of indoor jail space, the cost of Tent City remained the same, according to Woods, an average of $8.7 million annually.

Woods said this was because staffing had to remain the same to cover the land space involved.

Both Penzone and Woods stated that, contrary to the impression many have of Tent City, the prisoners actually preferred being outside to being confined to a cell.

"We were surprised to learn that the inmates felt very strongly that they wanted us to keep Tent City open," Woods said. "To a person. I can tell you I talked to probably 100 people out there, men and women. They were 100 percent. If you talk to the detention officers, they will tell you, yeah, those people out there like it. They want to be there."

Penzone also said that the inmates are in Tent City because they want to be.

"It has become a preferred location," he said, "and a choice as a priority for where they would like to stay. That undermines and goes against all the things we've been told for far too long."

Woods echoed this, saying that the cruelty of Tent City was more myth than reality.

"This is the good news and the bad news," Woods told reporters. "The good news is we weren't guilty of that. They have an environment there that they choose to be in and think it's okay and prefer it to the alternative of being cooped up 23 hours a day. The bad news is the rest of the country thinks we are that sort of person, who would abuse and humiliate prisoners and put them in such harsh situations."

I respectfully disagree. The culture of cruelty Arpaio fostered in the jails and the tents was a big part of his brand, and it was very popular with the voting public for 24 long years.

Arpaio was elected an amazing six times to the position of sheriff. By any yardstick, he has been an astoundingly successful politician, largely because of what someone once called his "jail 'em and whale 'em" correctional philosophy.

Tent City may be preferable to a concrete enclosure, but it's no Shangri-La. Prisoners once rioted over conditions there. As as in other parts of Arpaio's empire, there were gangs and drugs, wrongful deaths and beatings.

In 2003, Phillip Wilson was doing a couple of months in Tent City when he was bludgeoned into a coma from which he never awoke by members of the Aryan Brotherhood.

Fellow prisoners nearly thrashed inmate Jeremy Flanders to death in the tents while he was serving a stint there for burglary in 1996.

Check this brutal account of the attack on Flanders from the resulting lawsuit:

One witness saw an assailant use a tent spike to beat Flanders on the head, neck, and shoulders. Tent spikes were made of steel rebar and were used to secure the tents to the ground. Another witness heard a tent spike drop on the concrete floor of Flanders' tent during the assault.

The attack complete, another inmate entered the tent and found Flanders unconscious, gasping for air, and spewing blood out of his mouth, nose, and ears. Flanders had been bloodied and beaten so badly that the other inmate initially did not recognize Flanders.

No jail guards had arrived, so the other inmate carried Flanders over his shoulders for almost 100 yards, across the yard and into the main building. Flanders was laid at the feet of several detention officers. His eyes were rolled back in his head; his body was bloody and his face was swollen.

Flanders' injuries were severe and some were permanent. He suffered a closed head injury and was in a coma for several days. Permanent brain damage resulted. He has loss of motor function, loss of sensation in his left hand, and permanent loss of cognitive function causing short-term memory loss. Flanders also suffers from psychological problems, likely to be permanent, including anxiety and depression.

At the time of the attack, no guards were present in the yard or at the tents. No alarm sounded. No guard saw or heard the beating or noticed Flanders being carried across the yard.

Does that sound like the kind of place you'd want to spend some time?

In 2007, I wrote about a friend of mine who did a month in the tents on an extreme DUI rap. For the short duration he was there, he was forced to "join" a white gang, protect a stash of keistered-in tobacco, and fight a Latino dude because he broke in line in front of him. The Aryan Brotherhood told my pal that he had to fight the Latino man or endure a pummeling.

"One day, I saw [members of the Aryan Brotherhood] rush this guy, whale him in the head," he told me at the time. "They beat the fucking shit out of him. It was the middle of the fucking day. There were no guards anywhere."

Also, according to an anonymous letter of no confidence that Arpaio received last year from his employees, taking him to task for keeping Tent City open, the detention officers staffing the place could be used better elsewhere.

"Your recent decision to keep the nearly empty Tent City Jail open for your continued political gain sacrifices desperately needed detention officer positions in other areas and is unsafe," the letter read, in part. "There is plenty of bed space to move those inmates and officers inside, which would increase staffing in our jails."

To his credit, Penzone acknowledged that Tent City endangered the safety of his officers.

And even more to his credit, he says the open-air gulag will be closed in six months' time.

I understand why Woods and Penzone are framing Tent City's closure in this way.

Penzone does not want to be seen as soft on crime. And by closing this money pit, he's being smart on crime, as well as tough.

But there's no reason to pooh-pooh what Tent City has been, or the complicity of the voting public in making it that way.


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