Tommy Pitches a Tent 

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The Big House meets the Big Top: Arizona’s “Tent City” jail model could be coming to town.

Among the citizenry of Phoenix, Arizona, there are only two sentiments for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio: you either love the tough son of a bitch or loathe the sick bastard, and there ain’t nothing in between. Dubbed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Arpaio’s brought back the chain gang, installed webcams in jail intake, and forced inmates to wear pink underwear and eat green bologna. He’s best known, though, for his outdoor tent jail with a neon “Vacancy” sign hung from the overlooking watchtower.

Back in early November, Bexar County Commish Tommy Adkisson took a long detour from his road to reelection to visit Arpaio’s “Tent City” at Estrella Jail. It’s a magical place where inmates, wrapped in intentionally humiliating pink thermals under robber-striped scrubs, can bask in the sun from their bunks in 25-man tents, saving taxpayers millions and millions of dollars. That week, Bexar County’s jails were operating at 97.5 percent of their capacity, making the county the third-most-crowded jail system in Texas among counties with more than 1,000 detainees.

Adkisson’s opponent, Larry Click, and the Express-News speculated that Adkisson’s interest in tent jails was a tough-on-crime gimmick, and doomed to failure because of two major obstacles: a state law banning all but temporary tent jails, and the Bexar County Sheriff’s office, which hates the idea.

Rather than petering out now that Adkisson has been reelected, the tent-jail idea is still rolling along. Representative Phil King, a legislator from Parker County, has pre-filed a bill to allow the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to approve permanent tent jails. The idea, according to one of King’s aides, is further bolstered by Cameron County’s recent approval of its own $15,000-$20,000 tent facility to house 48 inmates.

For Adkisson, tent jails are first and foremost a tax-payer relief measure. Inmates currently cost the county $40 a day; with a population hovering at 4,000 that’s $58 million annually, excluding medical expenses. Tent jails wouldn’t necessarily reduce the daily expense, but instead save the county from building costly new brick-and-mortar jails.

The lobby of Arpaio’s Estrella Jail has a poster that tells visitors not to complain about the conditions, and instead think about our soldiers in Iraq, followed by images of fully geared soldiers sleeping under trucks or in grave-like foxholes. Phoenix’s incredibly mild winter weather makes Tent City preferrable to the accompanying indoor facility, according to a jail tour guide. And indeed it is a choice: an inmate can choose to live in fresh-air tents and join a work scheme, or else live indoors.

Estrella jail administrators have no qualms about escorting visitors directly through the middle of the three male units, which houses 800 inmates, and the 200-inmate female unit. The inmates walk freely between their tents and the indoor dayroom, where they can eat, shower, and store their personal effects in lockers; guards watch from the safety of surveillance towers.

Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union take issue with this portrayal, claiming Tent City doesn’t meet human-rights standards, particularly in terms of inmate safety, vermin infestation, and temperature control (inmates may not prefer the tents during the 110-degree-plus summers). Nevertheless, the facility enjoys widespread support in Phoenix, and helped Arpaio win multiple reelections.

Adkisson’s selling his idea with contradictory pitches. On one hand, he denounces our current jails as luxury resorts for criminals for whom incarceration is calculated into the cost of doing business.

Adkisson’s catchphrase (repeated half a dozen times during our interview): “Six to 10 percent of our jail population, which is about 400 inmates, go `to jail` for three square meals, air conditioning, color-cable television, and medical attention in a secured setting.”

He added: “I think the lower-echelon criminals that go into a tent jail may have a very sober moment to reflect on what they’re doing and say, you know, this really sucks.”

On the other hand, Adkisson claims inmates actually love Arpaio’s Tent City, going so far as to suggest that female inmates think to themselves that the sheriff is “the father we missed having when we were raised.”

The Bexar County Sheriff’s jail administrator, Deputy Chief Dennis McKnight isn’t having it. A switch to tents, he says, would require renegotiation of employee contracts, and represents a significant decrease in detainee safety. Besides, he asks, where the hell would they put the thing?

“We’re not in the punishment business here, for the most part,” McKnight said. “We’re in the ministering business, which means we take care of them, protect them, keep them in good shape.”

McKnight say there are too many pre-trial detainees and probationers in his jail. He’d like to see the time between arrest and court appearance cut from seven days to one, and judges should use other tools at their disposal. For example, electronic monitoring: Although the Sheriff’s office has 60 devices, only 29 are currently being used.

Adkisson and McKnight agree the real problem lies in our judicial system, in which judges are elected rather than appointed.

“I understand that judges have to have the appearance, at least the public persona, of being law-and-order minded, because if they don’t they’re not going to get reelected,” McKnight said. “The citizenry generally says put the bad guy in jail and keep him there, get him off my street. So at this point what do they do? They put him in my jail.”

Adkisson describes the public mindset more explicity:

“‘Lock and Sock’ is what Texas is famous for. Just throw ’em in jail. Jail ’em! We love jail. It’s right up there near sex. We just loooove jail. We LOVE it. Because you know what? Out of sight is out of mind.”

If Sheriff Ralph Lopez’s office continues to oppose permanent tent jails, Adkisson says he hopes Adult Probation Chief Bill Fitzgerald, who also visited Tent City, will pick up the cause. A probation facility may allow them to bypass the Commission on Jail Standards.

McKnight would be happy with that.

“I’ve long said you can build whatever kind of facility you want for probationers, and I have suggested we build `live-in` facilities for probationers because it’s cheaper, it’s more efficient, and the taxpayer gets more for his buck,” McKnight said. Judges may even order offenders to pay their own way as a condition of probation, he says.

Fitzgerald’s office opened a new drug-treament facility on Tuesday, but when the Current called the idea of a tent facility was news to them.


More by Dave Maass



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