Joe Arpaio’s infamous Arizona Tent City closing
Inmates watch as Joe Arpaio gives church leaders a tour through Tent City in 2012. | Matt York/AP

By the time former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio lost his re-election bid in 2016, he was widely thought of as one of the worst sheriffs in the country, if not the worst. He was known for harsh anti-immigrant policies, accusations of racial profiling, misuse of funds and any number of other complaints—and the perfect symbol of everything wrong with his way of approaching law enforcement was Tent City.

Bearing signs with the horrible pun “In-Tents unit” (“intense,” get it?), Tent City was Arpaio’s silly “get tough on crime” idea. And it quickly gave Maricopa County, and Arizona, a reputation as a place where revenge and hate were the driving principles behind law enforcement, an approach as inefficient and ineffective as it is immoral.

Since 1993, as many as 1,700 inmates at a time were housed in a seven-acre plot of tents. Inmates were forced to wear stereotypical black-and-white striped prison uniforms and, seriously, pink underwear. This is the type of man Arpaio is. He wants prisoners not only to pay their debt to society but to be humiliated—and he thinks making men wear pink underwear is the way to do it.

More serious were accusations of inhumane conditions at the facility, where the Arizona heat could reach 110 degrees during the hottest parts of the year. Prisoners complained of expired food and undrinkable water.

Contrary to Arpaio’s claims, evidence shows that Tent City was not only an ineffective crime deterrent, but expensive as well. Newly elected sheriff Paul Penzone said closing it will save millions of dollars, making the prison more efficient, more effective, and safer for both inmates and prison employees.

“The image of the tents as a deterrent to recidivism, and as a symbol of being tough on crime may have been true in the past. Today it is only a myth. Tent City is no longer an effective, efficient facility. It has been effective only as a distraction,” said Penzone. “The circus is over; the tents are coming down.”

It’s good to see that this shameful part of Arizona, and American, history is finally ending.

The above article by Kenneth Quinell appeared April 13 on the AFL-CIO Now Blog.



Kenneth Quinnell
Kenneth Quinnell

Kenneth Quinnell is Senior Writer at AFL-CIO