PHOENIX (CN) — Maricopa County’s new sheriff will close a controversial tent jail opened by his predecessor, Joe Arpaio, more than 20 years ago.
Sheriff Paul Penzone, a Democrat, said Tuesday that he will shut down “Tent City,” an outdoor jail made from surplus military tents, as recommended by an advisory committee.
“After a methodical review, I’m shutting down Tent City,” Penzone said at a news conference. “This facility is not a crime deterrent. It is not cost-efficient. It is not tough on criminals.”
Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” set up the jail in 1993 to highlight what he called overflowing jails, shortly after he was first elected. He said Tent City would hold more than 2,000 inmates, and called it a low-cost solution to building a new jail.
Arpaio made no bones about the fact that he intended Tent City to be punitive. He made male inmates wear pink underwear and dressed all prisoners in black and white striped jumpsuits, as in 1930’s movies.
Civil rights groups repeatedly blasted the jail, calling it inhumane to house people in tents during the Arizona summer, when temperatures exceed 110 degrees. During his five terms, Arpaio and his office were sued more than 600 times, mostly on civil rights charges, and investigated by the federal government.
“This facility became more of a circus atmosphere,” Penzone said Tuesday. “Starting today, that circus ends and the tents come down.”
Penzone said the closure will save taxpayers $4.5 million. About half of the 800 inmates in Tent City will be transferred to other jails in the next 45 to 60 days. Those with work furlough will take up to six months to transfer.
Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, called the decision a “good step forward.”
“Maricopa County’s jails are plagued by the mistreatment of pre-trial detainees and remain under federal court oversight because of the ongoing abuse of people with mental health problems,” Soler said in a statement.
“Maricopa County should use its savings from closing Tent City to improve care for mentally ill detainees, as well as invest in programs and services that treat the root causes of crime, like drug and mental health diversion programs, increased access to mental health care, and job training and education.”
Penzone said the closure will allow him to transfer detention officers to the other jails he oversees, at a time when the Sheriff’s Office is understaffed.
“We have the room,” he said.
Grant Woods, chairman of the advisory committee and a former Republican state attorney general, said it was time to move on from Arpaio’s policies.
“The days of Arizona being a place where people are humiliated or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizing of others are over,” Woods said.
Penzone appointed the committee in January to determine what to do with Tent City. He said his decision was driven by data.
“When I became sheriff I said I would run an efficient office,” Penzone said. “That’s why I make this decision with the upmost confidence.”
Arpaio, 84, lost his seventh bid for re-election in November after years of legal turmoil and costly settlements and attorney fees that plagued the Republican sheriff.
Penzone, a former Phoenix police sergeant, won by more than 111,000 votes, a 10 percent margin over the formerly popular Arpaio.
Despite his forced exit from politics, Arpaio’s legal troubles are not over. He faces a criminal contempt trial on April 25, in which he is accused of violating court orders in a longstanding racial profiling class action.