PHOENIX -- Several thousand critics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gathered for a rally on Saturday night to call for the closure of the sheriff's complex of canvas jail tents and to protest what they say are civil rights violations in Arizona.
Organizers say conditions in Arpaio's "Tent City" complex are inhumane because inmates are kept outside in triple-digit heat.
The sheriff told critics Tent City works and has been a successful operation since he opened the facility in 1993. He pointed out that some members of the U.S. military live in tents and said parents of inmates have called him to thank him for teaching their children a lesson.
Arpaio invited several of the leaders of the demonstration to join a tour of Tent City Saturday evening. Several members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which is holding its annual convention in Phoenix this weekend, joined.
Arpaio allowed the visitors to interact with the prisoners and let them taste the food the inmates are fed.
After the tour, Arpaio and the leaders held a joint press conference, during which a number of the visitors denounced conditions inside Tent City.
"No person should be housed in the heat in the desert in Arizona, it is inhumane," said Susan Frederick Gray, Minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix.
"I'm elected by the people, and I don't need Amnesty International coming in from out of state trying to tell this Sheriff how to run my operation," Arpaio said.
The county's jails were closed to visitors on Saturday in anticipation of the rally.
The rally was being held by the immigrant rights group Puente Arizona and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Arpaio is a national political fixture who built his reputation on jailing inmates in tents during Phoenix's triple-digit summer heat, dressing inmates in pink underwear, selling himself to voters as unceasingly tough on crime and pushing the bounds of how far local police can go to confront illegal immigration.
The U.S. Justice Department has accused the sheriff's office of racially profiling Latinos in its immigration patrols.
The sheriff has said the Justice Department's investigation of his immigration patrols was a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration and denied allegations of systematic discriminatory policing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report