Tent City kicking off 20th year of operation


by Catherine Holland

Video report by Ryan O'Donnell

Posted on August 3, 2012 at 8:15 AM

Updated Friday, Aug 3 at 10:36 AM

Map: Tent City jail

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PHOENIX -- Tent City, the controversial outdoor extension of the Maricopa County Jail where inmates live in surplus military tents, is going into its 20th year of operation.

Established in 1993, Tent City, which is located next to Estrella Jail near 35th Avenue and Durango Street, has a maximum capacity of 2,126 inmates. It is the largest facility of its kind in the U.S. -- and the most controversial.

Tent City was conceived as a way to deal with overcrowding in Maricopa County's jails.

"Sheriff Arpaio had previously decided that he would not release any inmates due to jail overcrowding, and housing sentenced inmates in the tents seemed a good solution," reads MCSO.org's page about Tent City.

While some say conditions at Tent City are inhumane, especially during the intensely hot Arizona summers when temperatures inside the tents car soar to 130 degrees, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has repeatedly said the conditions are no different from those endured by American servicemen and women serving in the Middle East, where it's even hotter.

According to the McDonald's-inspired sign on the fence at the entrance to the jail, 441,385 inmates -- both men and women -- have served time in Tent City in the 19 years since it opened.

Over the years, Tent City has been the site of numerous protests, the most of recent of which happened in late June. Thousands of people showed up.

"I'm very proud of the tents," Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in American, said several days before that protest. "It's humane. How could it not be after 20 years? Do you think I need these demonstrators this time of year, an election year, to come in front of the tents and say it's awful? Where have they been the past 20 years?"

A special invocation will be held at noon on Friday. Arpaio is expected to be on hand for that. It will be conducted by Michael Salman, a pastor who is serving a 60-day sentence in Tent City for holding church services at his home without proper permits.