For decades, Tent City in Arizona’s Maricopa County operated as a kind of sideshow attraction for the notorious then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The open-air enclosure was opened in 1993, ostensibly to house overflow from local jails. But after 24 years of high-profile publicity—and accompanying scandal—it’s coming down.
Last week, Maricopa County’s newly elected sheriff, Paul Penzone, announced that he would phase out the use of the headline-grabbing jail. “This facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public,” Penzone said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Starting today, that circus ends and these tents come down.”
Billed by Arpaio through the years as a cost-saving measure and then touted as a crime deterrent, Tent City fulfilled neither of those promises. Closing the underutilized facility, Penzone said, will, in fact, save the county $4.5 million a year, The Arizona Republic reported.
For Maricopa County, the shuttering of Tent City marks the end of an era.
It was a pet project of Arpaio’s, the hard-line anti-immigration sheriff who enjoyed inviting media and politicians to tour the premises. He dressed inmates in pink underwear and clichéd black-and-white-striped prison uniforms. Inmates slept outdoors in surplus Army tents even when temperatures inside reached 125 degrees during brutal Arizona summers. Arpaio was fond of Tent City–focused publicity stunts like when, in 2009, he sent out a press release to announce a parade of 200 immigrants who were made to cross a public street to transfer themselves from a detention center to Tent City, which was itself surrounded by electrified fencing.
“This is a population of criminals more adept perhaps at escape,” Arpaio said at the time. “But this is a fence they won’t want to scale because they risk receiving a shock—literally.”
In 2010, when Arizona garnered international attention for passing SB 1070, at the time the harshest anti-immigrant state law in the country, Arpaio welcomed what he expected would be an influx of immigrant detainees into his jails. He announced a so-called crime-suppression sweep for the day that SB 1070 was set to go into effect, and said he hoped to expand Tent City for the newly detained population. “Why not take advantage of a new law, if the opportunity presents itself?” Arpaio said then.
Critics had long called Tent City not only gratuitously humiliating but also inhumane. Arpaio seemed to revel in it all, often responding that he himself had spent a night in the facility and that it wasn’t just the incarcerated who were forced to endure the soaring temperatures. Paid guards patrolled the premises as well, he often said.