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The Geography of Justice: Aspen's Pitkin County Jail vs. Maricopa Tent City in Phoenix

Matthew Seyler's picture

Phoenix, Arizona's Maricopa County “Tent City” Jail:

“Inmates should never live better inside our jails than they do on the outside because, simply put, jails are not hotels.”
-Sheriff Joe Arpaio

When not busy being accused of civil rights violations, he likes to unwind with accusations of human rights violations. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a man under siege, as evidenced by the 2,700 lawsuits filed against him in Federal andPhoenix, AZ - A tower which holds a large flashing "VACANCY" sign can be seen in the far back corner of the Maricopa Tent City Jail.Phoenix, AZ - A stark contrast: Guard tower in far back corner holds a large flashing "VACANCY" sign over the Maricopa Tent City Jail. County courts between 2004 and 2007 alone, and the investigations conducted by such entities as the Justice Department, FBI, and Department of Labor. Inmates of his jails work hard to maintain what few privileges exist, as the Sheriff himself does his best to cultivate repulsion at the thought of a second visit.

Some fun-facts:

  • Inmates live outside in old Korean War Army tents, which the sheriff scored free of charge in 1993.
  • Temperatures inside them get up to 140 degrees during summer.
  • There's a double-whammy of a ban on porn and coffee.
  • The camp is bordered on one side by the county dump, with a dog food factory and a waste disposal plant flanking in opposite directions. For good measure, the Sheriff lined the fourth edge with Porta-Johns, essentially to create a perfect storm of foul odor when the wind blows just right.
  • The 19” TV runs on stationary bike power. Only those willing to take their turn pedaling to keep the electricity flowing are permitted to watch the six approved options, which include the Disney, Weather, and local government access channels.
  • Unarguably cruel and unusual, Sheriff Joe plays Newt Gingrich's ten part series on government each week for the inmates.
  • Humiliation is inherent in Maricopa County jail policy. Illustrating this, and perhaps being the cherry on top of the whole operation, are the infamous pink underwear and shirts; worn just to remind you that no one here is anyone's “bitch”, more than you are Joe Arpaio's.

  • Once inmates are sentenced, they are assigned a job and must either work, or spend 23 hours a day in “lockdown”. The only way for men and women to regain lost privileges is to volunteer for the chain gang, which they graduate from (diploma and all) after a month of cleaning up along the freeway in their classic – Phoenix, AZ - Some ladies of the Sheriff's volunteer chain gang getting shackled up and ready to hit the streets.Phoenix, AZ - Some ladies of the Sheriff's volunteer chain gang getting shackled up and ready hit the streets. [photo by Nina Rehfeld]vintage even – black and white striped outfits. The constant honking of passing motorists is like an audible pat on the back, saying “keep up the good work, you're doing great!” Or “watching your pain makes my day better!”'s hard to tell which.

    The daily food cost of an inmate is less than that of a guard dog. Some years back, my homicide detective dad passed through one of Arpaio's jails to transport a prisoner. She asked if he'd mind her bringing lunch, explaining that she'd already paid for the meal (yes, paid for the meal). The handcuffs didn't impede her from cheerily dispatching all two pieces of bread, lone slice of bologna, and peanut butter crackers (saving the grapefruit for dessert) in the Crown Victoria, knowing she was en route to a happier place: LA County Jail.

    I've painted a pretty harsh picture of the Tent City, but it's only fair to inform you that recent improvements have been made; including the addition of two Sky Watch security towers, and an electrified fence running the perimeter of the jail.

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