Tents have gone up in flames before at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's infamous outdoor compound.
And there's no reason to think it won't happen again at Tent City.
With virtually unlimited access to cigarettes, booze and drugs, enraged inmates could torch the tents, just like they did on October 4, 1994, when a five-hour riot erupted and two tents burned to the ground.
The melee broke out after guards discovered prisoners had somehow gotten on the roof of the adjacent Estrella Jail and retrieved 10 to 12 cartons of cigarettes and a number of liquor bottles.
Cigarettes and booze fuel a lively black market inside the tent compound, where individual smokes go for at least a dollar apiece. Sparking the row in '94 was a black marketeer's worry that a detention officer was about to find illicit profits hidden inside a locker. To create a diversion, the inmate torched a tent.
The fire triggered a frenzy, and soon another tent was burning along with a couple of outdoor toilets. Guards finally regained control of the facility after rounding up 48 "problem inmates" and transferring them to traditional jails.
Amazingly, no one was seriously injured during the disturbance. The conditions that existed in 1994 have only gotten worse, as more inmates are jammed into the tents with only a handful of guards to maintain order.
The incendiary black market remains alive and well.
Arpaio knowingly facilitates the freewheeling contraband trade by allowing hundreds of work-release and work-furlough inmates to bring up to $40 a day each into Tent City. These inmates together spend nearly $50,000 a month on food and other products sold from jail vending machines.
Naturally, Arpaio keeps demand high for the vending-machine fare by providing inmates food that's barely edible, if edible at all.
There's no doubt that a large portion of this money is also spent on the black market. It's only a matter of time before all hell breaks out again.
Insurrection, however, isn't the only threat to the safety and welfare of the more than 2,000 inmates jammed into Arpaio's rotting surplus military tents.
Shoddy electrical construction combined with leaky tents and steady rain has created hazardous conditions that could result in tragedy.
Inmates tell me they routinely see sparks flying from exposed wires leading to overhead fluorescent lights that have gotten soaked in the recent downpours. The light in one tent was hit the other day with such a powerful electrical surge during hard rain that it was ripped from its support bracket and crashed to the floor.
But that's not all.
Open electrical outlets connected to wires unprotected by conduits are strewn across wet concrete floors. Inmates have been sleeping on metal-frame bunks wet from the rains.
These reports of hazardous conditions aren't just the angry fantasies of drenched and disgruntled prisoners. I have obtained dozens of photographs taken inside Arpaio's tent jail in the last couple of weeks documenting the complaints.
There's no way any building inspector worth his clipboard would allow you or me to string up a haphazard maze of unprotected wires and open electrical boxes inside a leaking canvas structure that's used as permanent housing.
The inspector would slap a red tag with "Cease and Desist" in bold letters onto the nearest tent pole.
Unless the proprietor's name is Joe Arpaio.
For 12 years, the state fire marshal has let Arpaio slide with the unsafe conditions inside Tent City. Rather than shutting down the compound for violating the state fire code -- as one inspector urged in June 2002 -- the fire marshal has routinely granted a variance that has allowed Arpaio to keep his most successful publicity stunt open for business.
Arpaio certainly doesn't give a damn whether Tent City, which propelled him to international notoriety and immense political power, poses a serious threat to the safety of thousands of citizens.
That's right: citizens. Most of the folks held in Tent City haven't lost the rights of citizenship because they have been convicted of misdemeanors -- typically DUIs. These small-potatoes inmates are mere props in Arpaio's psychotic quest for attention and power.
Dignity, health and life mean nothing to Outlaw Joe. Inmates have beaten senseless, and several have been killed, while serving their rinky-dink sentences inside Arpaio's tents. In September 2002, state Court of Appeals Judge Jefferson L. Lankford held Arpaio personally liable for the severe beating of one inmate.
In a stinging 26-page opinion, Lankford wrote that the sheriff "admitted knowing about and in fact intentionally designing some conditions at Tent City that created a substantial risk of inmate violence. [There's a] lack of individual security and inmate control inherent in a tent facility [with] the small number of guards, a mixed inmate population subject to overcrowding [and] extreme heat and lack of amenities."
Lankford ruled that evidence presented in the inmate's lawsuit that led to the opinion supported the jury's finding that Arpaio was "callously indifferent" to Eighth Amendment protections afforded to prisoners and that he purposely "exposed Tent City inmates to serious injury."
Arpaio considers the appeals court ruling a minor nuisance.
"It doesn't impact anything," he told me last year, before he stopped speaking to me because I persisted in reporting on his corrupt regime.
When was the last time you told a Court of Appeals judge to shove it?
Arpaio's arrogance and reckless disregard for the law sends a powerful signal to his employees, many of whom take great delight in humiliating and threatening inmates and even their visitors.
Governor Janet Napolitano could put a stop to the Tent City outrage by ordering her newly appointed fire marshal, Bob Barger, to reject Arpaio's pending request for a variance to keep the tents open.
Napolitano could prove that she's more than a self-absorbed career bureaucrat worried that she must keep her head down so she can hang on to her current job for another term, or move on to something even more high-profile.
If Napolitano truly had the right stuff of courageous leaders, she would stare down Arpaio by putting a stop to his Tent City antic. For a politician worried about her career, there's nothing to lose anymore: Joe's demented regime has become the laughingstock of law enforcement across the state, and even Republican party bigwigs hate the blowhard's guts.
I'm saying that when the vast majority of the state's cops and powerful GOP officials -- hardly a bunch of liberal pantywaists -- come out strongly against one of their own, there's political capital to be gained by dashing Arpaio's delusion of grandeur and forcing him to close a facility that can never meet basic fire code regs.
Soon, there should be no need for Tent City. Taxpayers spent a whopping $500 million for two state-of-the-art jails that would be ready to go except for one giant problem.
Arpaio hasn't hired the 1,000 guards necessary to open the 3,200-bed facilities.
Even though he's had seven years to do it.
Somebody -- the governor, the county supervisors -- should tell him to get off his wrinkled ass and hire these detention officers pronto, because Tent City will be phased out because it cannot live up to minimum safety standards.
It's obvious Arpaio is dragging his feet in staffing the new jails. Why would he want to close his filthy Tent City gulag after it has made him a worldwide celebrity?
Arpaio knows he can always generate overcrowding in the jail system with haphazard roundups of deadbeat parents and prostitutes. If he really needs prisoners to prove his point that Tent City is still needed, he could even pull tens of thousands of warrants out of file cabinets and have his deputies sweep through poor neighborhoods.
In other words, he wouldn't be above phonying things up. He couldn't care less how much it costs taxpayers.
As a former U.S. attorney for Arizona and former Arizona attorney general, Napolitano must know that Arpaio uses Tent City to purposely violate the constitutional rights of Arizona's citizens in a crass grab for political power.
Such vulgarities are the hallmark of dictators.
Napolitano ducked my recent question about the future of Tent City during her weekly press conference, passing the buck to her newly appointed fire marshal to decide whether to issue another variance to keep Tent City open.
"The fire marshal can take a look at all the evidence, all the facts, and make a . . . determination," she said. The governor doesn't like to be asked tough questions at her weekly love fest with the daily media.
The trouble is, Bob Barger has been in office only six weeks and is still awaiting Senate confirmation. He's not going to declare war on Arpaio without Napolitano's blessing.
Barger tells me he hopes ongoing discussions with the sheriff's office will lead to a timetable for transitioning inmates out of Tent City and into the new jails.
"How long do you keep granting variances to the fire code?" says Barger, who made it clear to me that 12 years is long enough.
But Barger's engaging in wishful thinking if he believes Arpaio will voluntarily phase out the tents. The hammer will have to come down or Outlaw Joe will never budge.
It's clear that Barger wants to do the right thing. He wants to do his job, which is to ensure the safety of Arizona's citizenry, even if they are inmates in Arpaio's lockups. What the governor must do now is stop going against the wishes of her bedrock constituency of progressives and stand up to Outlaw Joe. She must back her fire marshal's clear belief that Tent City's an anachronism.
There's no percentage for her in staying out of it this time.
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