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Arpaio’s Infamous Tent City is Gone but Arizona State Prison’s Tent City Remains

by Matthew Clarke

Soon after he was sworn in as sheriff for Maricopa County, Arizona, Paul Penzone began phasing out the infamous Tent City jail erected by his predecessor, Joe Arpaio, who was found guilty of criminal contempt by a federal court in July 2017 but later pardoned by President Trump. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.42].

The final prisoner transport out of the Tent City jail occurred on October 7, 2017, but another Tent City, this one maintained at the Arizona State Prison (ASP) complex in Florence, remains in use.

The Tent City jail in Maricopa County, comprised of Korean war-era military tents, reportedly cost just $80,000 to build in August 1993, and Sheriff Penzone said closing it will save taxpayers about $4.5 million per year in operating expenses. Prisoners who were housed in the tents were moved to other county jail facilities.

“This facility is not a crime deterrent, it’s not cost-efficient and it’s not tough on criminals,” Penzone stated.

The ASP Tent City, also known as the North Unit, is controversial because it exposes up to 400 minimum-security prisoners to excessive heat, as the canvas tents are windowless and painted white.

“It felt as if you were living inside a raincoat,” said Corene Kendrick, an attorney with the Berkeley, California-based Prison Law Office, who toured the tents in 2015 while visiting prisons across the country.

Despite being equipped with evaporative coolers, the ASP Tent City remains oppressively hot in the summer with 20 prisoners crowded into each tent. The prisoners complain of insect and vermin infestations, and water intrusion.

“The night before we came, there had been a monsoon, so you could see watermarks [inside the tents] about six or eight inches above the ground,” said Kendrick. “The prisoners told us that every time there was a monsoon, the tents would flood.”

Kendrick also encountered a prisoner with serious mental illness being housed in a tent. Many of the drugs used to treat mental illness interfere with the body’s ability to regulate heat, and put the people taking them at increased risk of heat-related injuries. Further, many symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke are similar to the behavior displayed by the mentally ill – including irritability, anxiety and confusion.

In 2009, Arizona state prisoner Marcia Powell was locked in an outdoor cage on a 107-degree day. She was unresponsive within four hours, and died after prison officials removed her from life support without first contacting her court-appointed guardian. She basically baked to death. Powell was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and was taking anti-psychotic and mood-stabilizing drugs that made her more susceptible to excessive heat. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.32].

The prison system added misters, shade and water stations to its outdoor cages following Powell’s death. Yet prison officials were unclear when asked whether they restrict the amount of time a prisoner may be locked in an outdoor cage or whether there are limits to the heat prisoners may be exposed to or even whether they had a formal heat plan.

Court rulings in Louisiana and Texas have held that exposure to excessive levels of heat can violate prisoners’ constitutional rights. [See, e.g.: PLN, July 2018, p.1]. So how can it be legal for Arizona to keep prisoners in stifling tents?

“Arguably, it’s not legal,” said Kendrick.

Long-term tent housing is “simply not appropriate” even in the best weather, added Caroline Isaacs with the American Friends Service Committee’s office in Tucson. During the heat of summer, she said, “it’s just inhumane.” And yet the practice persists. 


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