New sheriff to shutter infamous Tent City in Arizona

Maricopa County's infamous Tent City in 2010.
(Image credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

Just a few months after taking office in Arizona, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is closing down an open-air jail that housed inmates in military-style tents year-round.

Joe Arpaio, the county's former sheriff who was defeated by Penzone last November, erected Tent City during his first year in office in 1993. Arpaio made a name for himself because of his hardline stance on illegal immigration, and he enjoyed appearing on television to talk about how he made the inmates in Tent City wear pink undergarments. Arpaio argued that by freeing up space inside overcrowded brick-and-mortar facilities, he was saving money, but when Penzone announced Tent City's closure on Tuesday, he said it would save the county approximately $4.5 million. The decision to close the open-air facility was made unanimously by an advisory committee Penzone set up in January.

"This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost efficient, and it is not tough on criminals," he said. Outsiders thought it had a zoo-like atmosphere, and "starting today, that circus ends," Penzone said, "and these tents come down." There are about 800 inmates in Tent City now, and about half will be moved during the next two months, with the rest leaving within six months. Inmates had to request to be in Tent City, and while Arpaio said it was rough serving time in the outdoors, officials now say many inmates ask to be there because the open space is a relief.

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Grant Woods, a member of the advisory committee and a former state attorney general, said he was glad to hear conditions in Tent City were not as grave as Arpaio and civil rights activists claimed. "Having said that, the days of Arizona being a place — I hope — where people are humiliated or embarrassed or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizement of anybody or anything are over," he told The Arizona Republic. "They have no place in our community, they don't reflect our community, and we're moving on."

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Catherine Garcia

Catherine Garcia is night editor for Her writing and reporting has appeared in Entertainment Weekly and, The New York Times, The Book of Jezebel, and other publications. A Southern California native, Catherine is a graduate of the University of Redlands and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.