In the middle of a desert, under a burning sun lies a sprawling tent prison. In each giant tent are forty-four prisoners, all wearing pink underwear designed to humiliate them, and eating two tasteless meals a day. Salt is forbidden in this open-air prison.
No, this isn’t Afghanistan or Iraq. It is Phoenix — the largest city in the sovereign American state of Arizona.
Probably the most controversial prison in the developed world, the Tent City Prison routinely incurs the wrath of rights groups and US citizens who have issues with seeing human beings treated worse than animals. That’s not just a metaphor; unlike the prisoners, the guard dogs in this prison actually have air-conditioned and heated dens. The human inmates get to swelter or freeze, depending on the time of year.
Regardless of the criticism, or perhaps because of it, the founder of the prison takes great pride in what he established 18 years ago.
Looking and sounding like the reincarnation of a medieval jailer, Sheriff Joseph Arpaio loves to call himself the toughest sheriff in America. Despite facing a probe by federal justice department over alleged human rights violations, he’s been sweeping every election in Maricopa County since 1993. Sheriffs in the US are elected in every county by popular vote. Sheriff Joe, as he likes to be called, doesn’t believe in sparing the rod. In his playbook, punishment is the best tool to straighten out criminals. But to him, keeping inmates in tents is no punishment at all.
“When our soldiers can live in tents in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan and Iraq, why not the prisoners? I myself stayed in those tents twice just to see if I could survive,” he retorts while ridiculing Amnesty International and other rights groups for their criticism. “The soldiers didn’t commit any crimes, these guys did.”
Sheriff Joe craves the spotlight. And he invents new tricks to attract the media’s attention. So far his success rate has been quite high. “The secret of Sheriff Joe’s popularity is that media simply loves his tricks no matter how stupid they are,” observes a professor of journalism at the Arizona State University.
The publicity-hungry Sheriff never finds it difficult to lure news-hungry journalists. He welcomes TV crews from all over the world, providing them full access to the prison. He even allows them to talk to the prisoners. And he doesn’t care that most of them spend their time complaining about the prison.
“Why should I care [about critics] because I know whatever I am doing is right. I am not answerable to anyone — any politician, any official. I am accountable to the people of my county who have elected me,” Sheriff Joe’s response is punctuated with mocking gestures when he talks about politicians and officials.
Tent City Prison is a well-guarded facility, a 20-minute drive away from downtown Phoenix. It also has a few indoor prisons, but Sheriff Joe decides whether to lock a particular prisoner indoors or to keep him in the tent prison. Prisoners have no say in the matter.
During the past three years, 45,000 convicts have made their way to the tent prison. Most of the inmates were Latinos arrested on charges of violation of probation. Arizona shares a large border with Mexico and is a favorite route for human smugglers and drug traffickers.
The tent city houses some 1,000 prisoners at the moment. Visitors are escorted by well-equipped, armed SWAT teams to ensure their safety. Visitors can roam around the tents, talk and shake hands with the prisoners who are apparently quite friendly and peaceful. After all, none of them wants to be shot or thrashed by the heavily built cops wearing bullet-proof jackets and carrying sophisticated gadgets along with guns loaded with rubber bullets and live ammunition.
As far as the jail staff is concerned, it’s clear that Sherrif Joe is their hero. Some of them have been with him since he was first elected Sheriff in 1993. Many of them took part in the establishment of the facility, erecting iron bars and fences with their own hands.
“What the media reports is not fully true. Let us show you what the real tent prison is: the inmates have every facility, except air conditioning in summers and heating in winters,” explains Officer G Miller, one of the tour guides.
The tourist’s entrance leads to a large dining area with 27 long steel tables, each with 16 stools attached. On one wall of the hall is a 29 inch wall mounted television. Prisoners are allowed to watch only three channels: a weather channel, a sports channel and a cartoon channel. The prisoners are fed twice a day, in the morning and evening. There is no such thing as lunch. Sheriff Joe and his subordinates defend the decision to feed the inmates only twice, saying they are fulfilling their caloric requirements. “Their meals contain 2900 calories which is what’s required for a normal human being in a day,” Officer Miller argues.
Their breakfast consists of an orange, a loaf of bread, a small quantity of peanut butter and a cup of skimmed milk. At dinner they are served hot food without salt. They are not allowed to consume alcohol, smoke or drink coffee.
After you cross the smelly dining hall and a narrow pavement you come to a huge field flattened with raw gravel. Tall fences are used to segregate the tents, although they are accessible through the gates. The idea of building the tent prison on this pattern is to diminish any chance of revolt by the prisoners. Comprising rough canvas sheets and thick iron bars, each tent has 22 bunk beds meaning 44 inmates share each tent. They are given blankets in winters but no fans in summers, when temperatures can top 38 degrees centigrade.
“Are you crazy to say that we wanna stay in this crappy place? What the hell are you talking about man? The officers are just telling you lies, don’t listen to them homie,” a powerfully-built and heavily tattooed inmate says while still lying on his bed.
Another inmate leafing through a novel complains about the food. He says he hates to eat the same food for months on end. “It sucks,” was his final comment before he turned back to his book.
The inmates deal with incarceration just like prisoners in any other US prison: they make gangs based on their ethnicity. The Blacks are called Woods, Latinos call themselves the Pieces, Hispanics are Chicanos, Native Americans are the Chiefs and Whites are called Kenwoods. Scuffles are common, but normally not lethal.
Living in a tent prison comes with some benefits as well: It is easier to smuggle contraband from outside. Several times relatives and friends of the inmate were seen throwing small plastic bags containing cigarettes, drugs or other contraband over the tall fence. The watchmen keep a strict check on every nook and corner of the fence, but sometimes the inmates get lucky.
Whenever an inmate dies in the prison rights groups hold Sheriff Joe and the harsh conditions of the prison responsible. But Sheriff Joe doesn’t care. “I have thousands of prisoners. If somebody dies it’s pretty normal,” he says in a rather taunting manner.
Sheriff Joe is a funny character who constantly cracks jokes either to impress or ridicule his audience. “I treat dogs with more respect than the inmates in my jail because dogs haven’t committed a crime. Gandhi once said if you want to observe the character of any nation look at how they treat their animals,” Sheriff Joe says in his coarse voice and then pauses as if expecting applause.
Ironically, this follower of Gandhi wears a gun-shaped tiepin and carries a loaded firearm in a side holster everywhere he goes. He is obsessed with the idea that someone wants to kill him and only moves around the county with a couple of deputies.
Joe Arpaio wants to “serve” his county for many more years. He is running a rather aggressive media campaign brushing aside all the criticism against him. He is not afraid of countering journalists who write or report against him. His motto is to protect and serve the Valley of the Sun at any cost — even human rights violations.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 27th, 2011.