My Tour of the Tents: a look inside Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail

Last month, July 16 – 18, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Netroots Nation conference, which this year was held here in Phoenix. This is the final piece in a four-part recap of my #NN15 experience. The previous three pieces are available here:

I want to send a huge THANK YOU to my friend Hannah Simpson for sharing the photos from our Tent City tour with me to include in this post. Check out Hannah’s recent Op-ed from Advocate.com: Why This Trans Woman Doesn’t Want to Ban Drag, But Say ‘Thank You.’


Estrella Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona
Estrella Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona

Tent City sits directly behind another detention facility, the Estrella Jail. It’s not at all a long drive from downtown Phoenix, and Hannah and I arrive right on time. The building itself resembles an elementary school on the outside, but with the notable addition of razor wire adorning the top of the perimeter walls, serving as crown molding for a facility designed to keep people in at all cost.

Not knowing quite what to expect, we enter through the main doors of Estrella to check in as instructed in the confirmation email from a few days earlier. The place is deserted. We wait for a moment at the front desk, until an office attendant behind the glass notices we’re there. We’re told no one knew we were coming. We produce the email confirming our scheduled tour, take our seats in the waiting room, and wonder if we’ll be able to see the jail after all.
Estrella Jail Waiting Room
Estrella Jail Waiting Room

Nearly 45 minutes later, a guard appears to collect us and off we go. We follow him out the door and around the east side of Estrella, toward the entrance to Tent City. A second guard appears, ready to join us for the remainder of the tour.

Through a tangle of chainlink and cinderblock, behind rolling gates and padlocks, the first stop on the tour is the contraband wall. Located in an antechamber outside the jail’s day room, the display case opens to reveal various items confiscated from inmates over the years. Rosaries, cigarettes, handmade shivs and improvised tattoo guns hang in the case like trophies alongside news articles singing praises to Sheriff Joe and his cost-saving, “tough on crime” approach to law enforcement.

 Next, we’re shown the visitation kiosks. Thanks to a “revolutionary” implementation of video conferencing terminals earlier this year, the visitation process is now entirely intermediated by technology. No longer are visitors able to sit at a table across from an inmate and hold a conversation. Even the area of reinforced glass previously used to separate inmates from visitors is no longer in use. Each 20 minute visitation costs $8, and at no point do visitors set eyes on inmates directly.

It is here that I become truly aware of the ever-present, haunting ethos of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It’s present in the language of the guards when they describe the contraband wall, and the installation of the new visitation system. It’s present in the Estrella waiting room, where a portrait of Joe hangs on the wall, across from an enormous quote reading “The next time you want to complain about Tent City, STOP! Instead, think about how hard life is for our soldiers in Iraq.”

Here in the antechamber, it’s most present in the form of pro-Joe propaganda posters posted every 10 feet or so across the walls. Each poster shows a different picture of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputies in action: a group of four deputies with guns drawn, pointed at the camera; a group of inmates working in a chain gang as MCSO deputies stand watch, etc. Overlaid on each photo are the words “STAY SHERIFF” in yellow text on a black banner. I can only imagine what it must be like to work here, walking the hallways 20 times a day with the words STAY SHERIFF always visible out of the corner of my eye.

Next, we’re led into the day room. The inmates have access to this air-conditioned space 24 hours a day, we’re told. It’s where they eat, access their lockers, the toilets and showers, and have the option of watching one of three available channels on the shared big screen TV mounted high on the wall above. The austerity of the day room is depressing. As spartan and uninvitingly utilitarian as possible, the many metal tables with attached metal stools are empty. Aside from a single inmate sitting off to one side for a quick buzz cut, we are the only ones in the space.

“We emphasize hygiene here,” the tour guard says as he walks over to a set of lockers. “Everyone shaves. They don’t like it, they can request to move to another facility.” This appears to be standard procedure for managing disagreeable inmates: They don’t like it, they can request to move to another facility. Choosing a locker at random and opening it for a spontaneous search, the guard continues, “They’re in jail, so they pretty much have no rights, you know?“

“No privacy rights,” his partner clarifies.

Without much else to see, we move through the day room and back outside to see the tents themselves. It doesn’t take long for the inmates to notice two additional guards in the yard, along with their two timid visitors in tow. “We still on lockdown?” one of the men shouts in our direction.

“Nah, you guys can chill,” replies a guard, offering no further explanation. I make eye contact for a split second with one of the inmates closest to us. Slowly, he begins to approach.

“Hey! No. Turn around,” a guard calls out to the inmate, pointing toward the tents. Without a word, the inmate turns on a dime and saunters back to his bunk. It is clear who is in charge here.

The Tents
The Tents

We move closer to the tents, and our tour resumes. One guard explains, “The tents are canvas with metal frames. They get hot in the summer, but a few years ago, we had a riot. At that time, the frames were wood and the inmates burned them to the ground. Now they get hot metal.“

As we walk between the tents, the squalid living conditions that are everyday life for the inmates become apparent. Each tent is built on an island of concrete amid an ocean of course gravel. In this environment designed to be intentionally hostile to life itself, the presence of live inmates is the only miraculous evidence that survival here is possible at all. Not a single blade of grass or even a rogue weed grows within the electrified chainlink and razor wire of Tent City.

Inmates in various stages of undress slowly move about the tents. The summer sun is at its height for the day. Now is the time to avoid physical activity if possible, and stay in the shade. Each tent holds 16 bunks, accommodating up to 32 inmates. It’s explained to us that although bunks are not assigned, “you keep to your own.” White inmates bunk together, black inmates together, Asians together, etc. The one exception is for non-English speakers, who apparently keep to themselves in a single tent off to one side.

We make it to the center of the yard and pause to partake in the temporary solace of a small patch of shade provided by a guard watch post. It’s here where the ultimate manifestation of Sheriff Joe’s specter is revealed. The guards direct us to look across the yard and up at the heretofore unnoticed watch tower. It’s similar in design to a standard lifeguard tower, though much higher above ground, and with one glaring difference: a neon VACANCY sign is attached to the underside of the tower’s cabin.

Tent City Watchtower
Tent City Watchtower

When we ask about the significance of the sign, we’re told that it’s infamous. Though no longer in use, Arpaio’s intention was to send a message: there’s room in Tent City for all offenders. I try to imagine the look on the Sheriff’s face lighting that sign on its first night after installation.

One inmate sits up on a bunk in a nearby tent and calls out to us. Motioning to our camera and notebooks, he asks, “You guys reporters?” We ask if we can interview him. With the guards’ approval, we leave the watch post and walk back through the tents, over to the outdoor laundry area.

Tent City Laundry
Tent City Laundry

Now with plenty of shade for the five of us to stand comfortably in a circle, we ask the inmate his name. He grins widely, and turns his back to us, revealing an outline of the state of Texas tattooed to the back of his shaved head. He points with both thumbs to the tattoo, “Texas.” In spite of present circumstances, Texas is in high spirits. Today is his last day in Tent City, tomorrow he’s getting out.

We ask what he thinks of Tent City. He tells us it’s both better and worse than other facilities. For short sentences, he prefers it. “It’s hot,” he tells us, “but in some places you don’t even get to go outside.” If he would have been sentenced to anything longer than his seven months, he would have requested a different facility, maybe even a prison. “There’s more respect there. Here, you have too many kids trying to prove they’re something. You get tired of it.” We ask what the worst part of Tent City is, and without hesitation he tells us it’s the food. Eating brown bag lunches seven days a week gets old fast.

Interview with Texas
Interview with Texas

We thank Texas for his time, wish him luck on the outside, and begin moving toward the gate at the North end of the laundry area. We stop and talk to the deputy posted near the gate as one of our tour guards begins opening the many padlocks on the gate.

This deputy is only a handful of years away from retirement, we’re told. I ask what he plans to do when he leaves Tent City for good. He shakes his head. “Greet people at Wal-Mart, I guess,” he says. We chuckle, move through the gate, and begin the walk back to the Estrella parking lot.

We pause for one final photo with the watchtower in the background. One of the guards turns to look at us. “So what you guys think? Is it as bad as they say in the media?”

I find it difficult to speak my mind after the courtesy shown to us over the course of the tour. “It’s a jail,” is the most honestly-ambiguous answer I can muster to sum up my impression of the facility.

Outside Tent City
Outside Tent City

Truthfully, it is as bad as I’ve always heard while growing up in Arizona. Sure, we hadn’t witnessed any flagrant abuse of inmates, and the guards were nothing but professional throughout the tour. Still, it would have been hard to complete the tour without developing an appreciation for the unique sort of Hell that is Tent City. Silently, I wonder about the many invisible structural forces in play that make life in Tent City more difficult. The forces that aren’t seen, but that are lived everyday by the inmates and their loved ones on the outside.

We thank the guards one last time and soon we’re back on the road heading toward downtown Phoenix, Sheriff Joe’s neon VACANCY sign still visible in the rear view mirror.

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