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    Montini: Turn Tent City into Arpaio Park?

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    5 minutes with Paul Penzone, the new Maricopa County sheriff

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    Bernie Sanders’ wife visits Tent City

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    Pamela Anderson and Sheriff Joe Arpaio at Tent City

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    MCSO considered closing Tent City

Tent City, the outdoor facility that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio created as a low-cost solution to overcrowded jails, will shut down, according to Sheriff Paul Penzone.

Penzone made the announcement Tuesday based on the recommendation of an advisory committee that he appointed after he defeated Arpaio and took office in January.

As jail populations dwindled in recent years, Tent City stood largely as a political pawn for its founder. Arpaio pointed to the facility as a testament to his “tough on crime” image, and last year refused to consider its closing at the expense of detention officer raises.

Tent City was expected to cost about $8.6 million over the current fiscal year, yet recent inmate counts show the facility is all but vacant.

A snapshot from September showed only about 400 of Tent City’s 2,176 beds were occupied by full-time inmates. Another 400 were sleeping at the tents but were on work furlough, meaning they’re released into the community for 12 hours a day.

Though he only announced his official decision on Tuesday, Penzone seemed to foreshadow the facility’s fate in an interview earlier this year.

“The cost efficiency of the jail has likely diminished” since it was opened, Penzone said, but “it’s going to be a data-driven decision.”


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The committee is chaired by former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who teased the announcement Tuesday morning on social media.

“After months of study, we are ready to make our recommendations to the Sheriff concerning Tent City,” he tweeted.

Woods said earlier that the committee’s goal was to determine whether Tent City served a legitimate public-safety service and whether it was a worthy taxpayer expense.

The ultimate decision was played close to the vest, with the committee closing its meetings to public and the media.

Other board members hold an assortment of law-enforcement and community service expertise and include Maricopa County NAACP President Dr. Ann Hart, Arizona public-health expert Will Humble, and Lydia Guzman, a civil-rights activist for Latinos and longstanding critic of Arpaio.

The decision to close Tent City was unanimous among the board members.

Tuesday’s recommendation is the most significant departure from Arpaio-era policies since mid-February, when Penzone announced he would no longer honor “courtesy” immigration holds for the federal government in his jails.

Arpaio, who became a national celebrity for his hard-line policing strategies against illegal immigration, endured multimillion-dollar court battles to preserve this image. An ongoing racial-profiling lawsuit has now cost the county nearly $56 million.

Penzone framed himself as the anti-Arpaio on the campaign trail. He promised to move away from politically-based decisions in favor of public safety and fiscal responsibility.

Tent City Jails were erected in 1993, where a 7-acre compound in south Phoenix was stocked with military surplus tents rather than brick and mortar. The facility only houses sentenced inmates — largely DUI offenders — rather than those held before trial.

The facility has drawn the ire of civil-rights activists for years. The open-air facility subjects inmates to all the elements of the Phoenix desert, including the summer’s blistering 110-plus-degree temperatures.

The timing of Penzone’s announcement coincides with a rally to close Tent City immigrant-rights groups and labor organizers will hold at the facility at 5 p.m. A press release of the event said “victims” would be on-hand to report on their experiences.

“[Arpaio] has left behind a culture of cruelty and corruption that won’t be easy to repair, and we’re not resting until it leaves with him,” Puente’s executive director Carlos Garcia said in the release. “A new day for the county starts with a totally new structure in its highest office – one that upholds the dignity of all people in the community it serves.”

The Tuesday afternoon rally is part of a national demonstration calling for “racial and economic justice” on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, according to Abril Gallardo, organizer for Living United for Change Arizona.

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