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

Matthew Seyler's picture

Aspen, CO - If you're going to steal a car, do it in Aspen; only an amateur desert thief rolls the dice somewhere like Phoenix. There is a complex web of competing philosophies on the purpose of jail – punishment, rehabilitation, to deter, to preserve the rights of the innocent, or some hybrid – none of which I care to get into with any depth here; there are entirePhoenix, AZ - Inmates of the Maricopa Tent City Jail taking it easy, as usual. [photo by Nina Rehfeld] books devoted to the ethics of incarceration. No, I aim to point out a vast dichotomy that exists by comparing two nearly opposite institutions. Even while disagreeing on what constitutes just punishment, we can all recognize that the type imposed on a criminal may vary drastically depending on nothing more than location. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the geography of justice.

These links won't bite, folks: click around this article for more pictures, videos, sources, and information of interest.

Aspen, Colorado's Pitkin County Jail:

“...persons are sentenced to jail as punishment, not for punishment.” -Pitkin County Jail website

Say “jail” to yourself. What are the first images and emotions that pop up? Vertical bars and hopelessness? Apathetic guards and extreme lack of privacy? A drab environment, where the only things not black or white are some intermediary gray? Perhaps some cliché shower scene.

When I stumbled across aAspen, Co - One of the Pitkin County Jail cells that Charlie Sheen nearly occupied.Aspen, Co - One of the Pitkin County Jail cells that Charlie Sheen nearly occupied. picture of one of the 65sq foot rooms cells-with-a-view Charlie Sheen was to stay in after his latest brush with the law (which he didn't, but “rich justice” is an article for another time), I couldn't help but notice a resemblance to my apartment – though there isn't a toilet placed conveniently ten feet from my bed. I have no resentment of Sheen for living better than me out in the world, but the uncanny similarity I saw sparked, and then begged an answer to the question: when he breaks the law, why should I start footing the bill (as a non-criminal taxpayer) for his superior lifestyle?

It's not just the “balanced,Aspen, CO - My apartment (which I pay money to live in).Aspen, CO - My room (which I pay money to live in). hot, varied, dietitian approved” meals (which can be supplemented by shopping at the jail commissary), carpeted floors (to reduce bothersome noise), gym (with treadmills, basketball court, and weight machines), or even cable TV (which I don't have) that struck me. These beyond-necessity services being so readily provided grants a freedom that almost compensates for what is lost through confinement: the freedom from individual responsibility.

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If I want a furnished studio apartment, I have to pay for it. Same goes for food, gym membership, cable TV subscriptions and medical care. Funding just the necessities of life depends on me fulfilling several responsibilities, such as generating income and managing money wisely. For Aspen's criminals, it's just “play nice”, and all will be provided. To their credit, Pitkin doesn't seem to give special treatment to VIP guests -- but offers VIP treatment indiscriminately.

So long as we're spending tax money for the above-and-beyond comfort and luxuries of people, wouldn't it be more logical to reward productive, or even just innocent citizens first? Aspen, CO - The Pitkin County Jail fitness center.Aspen, CO - The Pitkin County Jail fitness center.As it stands, many people looking at such a system will feel that the innocent are sacrificed for the guilty, and the victim gets punished twice.

It is important to note that the majority of inmates have been charged with, but not convicted of crimes, and are thus presumed innocent. Once convicted, folks can be held for up to two years without being shipped off to the less cozy state prison, and may be put to work in the community. For those who still think this sounds too soft, know that basketball is restricted to half court, and inmates do not at this time have personal Segway scooters, and must use their own legs to propel themselves from personal day room to multipurpose area during their 8am to 11:30pm free-roaming time. Now I'm not saying I'd trade lives with a Pitkin Jail resident or anything, but if I did some time there and was free to go, I might stay a few extra nights if no pressing business awaited me on the outside. Next, we'll be looking at a place where such statements are reserved for only the most masochistic among us.

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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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    Philosophies at Maricopa Tent City and Pitkin County Jail are mutually exclusive, to put it mildly. But is there some proper middle ground between pseudo dog kennels and resorts? Does sending a criminal to a cushy place in Aspen differ much from putting an unruly child in his toy palace of a room as punishment? Actually, for an average person being sent to Pitkin County Jail, a more fitting analogy would involve upgrading the child to an even nicer room than he already has (Playstation3, candy, internet—the works), providing him with no practical need to leave, and the parent simply pointing at the lock on the door when asked which part of the charade is supposed to be punishment. If indeed “persons are sentenced to jail as punishment, not for” it, at what point do we begin actively rewarding crime? In other words, confinement seems like a low cost for criminals to pay in exchange for safety, shelter, and amenities which wouldn't otherwise be freely attainable, and which further release him from the burden of responsibility.

    On the flip side, is going out of the way to cause humiliation just gratuitous insult to injury? Do pink outfits bring any value beyond mere publicity? If we grant such power to courts, knowing they are run by people (and are thus inherently flawed), we all become accessories to a crime the moment an innocent man is wrongfully sentenced to subhuman treatment.

    Awareness of the conflict itself says nothing of what is correct, but you need to identify a problem before it can be rationally dealt with. Is Pitkin better than Maricopa, or do both miss the point completely? Should every county in America independently decide what brand of justice suits them best? What do you think? Let us know. In the meantime, if you have to break the law, or are just strapped for cash and need a good workout, do what all savvy delinquents ought to: get nabbed in Aspen. You may not get much street cred, but the grub alone will make up for it.