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Tent City, Maricopa County’s open-air jail notorious for hosting inmates wearing pink underwear in the blistering summer heat, 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 taking office in January.

The tents served as a prominent symbol of Penzone’s predecessor, Joe Arpaio, who erected the facility in 1993, his first year in office, and held it up as an inexpensive solution to overcrowded jails. Penzone defeated Arpaio in last year’s general election, ending his 24-year span as sheriff.

At an afternoon press conference Tuesday, Penzone said Tent City has become the preferred location for inmates and a liability for understaffed detention officers. Shuttering the facility will save the county approximately $4.5 million a year, he said.

Anticipating potential criticism about the move, Penzone assured the community there is plenty of room at the county’s other detention facilities

“This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost efficient, and it is not tough on criminals,” he said, adding that the facility had become more of a “circus” atmosphere for the general public. “Starting today, that circus ends, and these tents come down.”

Penzone said the process would not happen overnight. About 50 percent of the Tent City inmates — there are about 800 of them — will be moved to other facilities in the next 45 to 60 days, while those on work furlough may take up to six months.


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Part of Arpaio’s ‘tough on crime’ image 

As jail populations dwindled in recent years, Tent City stood largely as a political pawn for its founder. Arpaio, who first was elected in 1992 and remained sheriff until Penzone unseated him, 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 are 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.”

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,” Woods 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 the public and the media.

At the press conference, Woods said most of the inmates actually preferred the open space of Tent City to its indoor counterparts, which flies in the face of civil-rights advocates who for years have claimed conditions at the jail facility were unusually harsh.

Also, Woods noted, a Tent City stint was voluntary. Inmates had the choice to be housed inside.

“That tells you that the negative image that we’ve gotten since 1993 — that  we are so tough on prisoners in Maricopa County — that that was false,” he said.

Woods noted that this was good and bad news: While the county suffered an undue negative image because of the tents, he was relieved to hear the inmates hadn’t been mistreated there.

“Having said that, the days of Arizona being a place — I hope — where people are humiliated or embarrassed or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizement of anybody or anything are over,” he said. “They have no place in our community, they don’t reflect our community, and we’re moving on.”


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Decision to close jail unanimous

Other board members hold an assortment of 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 Jail was 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 of the elements of the Phoenix desert, including the summer’s blistering 110-plus-degree temperatures.

Arpaio said he respects Penzone’s decision

When reached for comment after the press conference, former Sheriff Joe Arpaio said he would respect Penzone’s decision.

“That’s his call, OK? Not mine. I’m not going to second-guess him,” he said. “If I was still the sheriff, those tents would never be gone.”

Arpaio said Tent City was a “great program” when he started it 24 years ago and claimed that it saved “millions and millions of dollars.”

“George Soros got his wish,” Arpaio said, referring to the liberal billionaire who funded anti-Arpaio ads during the 2016 campaign. “When he pumped about $5 million against me to get me out of office, he wanted to close Tent City. So I guess he got his wish.”

The timing of Penzone’s announcement coincides with a rally to close Tent City that immigrant-rights groups and labor organizers held outside of Tent City late Tuesday afternoon.

Close to 50 demonstrators showed up at the rally, applauding Penzone’s move and urging him to continue making reforms at the county jails.

“We’re really looking forward to seeing this first step and looking forward to seeing him take many more steps,’’ said Maria Castro, an organizer with Phoenix-based PuenteHuman RightsMovement, which works with migrant communities in Arizona.

“This is a community victory. This is something we’ve been working hard for for many years.’’

She called on Penzone to provide adequate meals and needed supplies to inmates, in particular women who are incarcerated at the jails and to remove U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who screen detainees during the booking process in the Fourth Avenue Jail.

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

Elva “Paty” Bernal, a 53-year-old Phoenix resident, was held last year for several hours at the Tent City Jail and later transferred to federal immigration officials after she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI conviction from December 2015, she said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

Bernal said the jail was “inhumane” and she’s glad it will be shutting down.

“The food is expired, the water isn’t drinkable … It was an experience that I wouldn’t wish upon anybody,” Bernal said. “I’m very happy because we are fighting for the well-being of our community, there won’t be any other people who’ll go through what I experienced. We’ll keep raising our voices to get immigration out of jails in Arizona.”

Bernal has lived in the U.S. without immigration status for more than 30 years after crossing the border illegally, and her six children were all born in the U.S.

Arizona Republic reporter Eric Newman contributed to this article.

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