Turn Up the Heat

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."