The Rev. Susan Frederick Gray (front) and the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris tour 'Tent City.' (© 2012 Dea Brayden)
Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales said he was “saddened and appalled” by what he observed inside the Tent City jails, an outdoor jail complex maintained by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio led Morales on a tour of a women’s and a men’s jail Saturday evening. He was accompanied by the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, president of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Dr. William Schulz, president of the UU Service Committee, the Rev. Susan Frederick Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, and the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, minister of the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek California.
Arpaio greeted the visitors outside the Estrella Jail, a women’s facility enclosed in tall chain-link fence topped with concertina wire. Parked outside the entrance was a black tank emblazoned with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office logo. A sign on the fence said, “Tent City. 19 Years. 437,946 ‘served’ time.”
Complaints of cruel and unusual punishment have been lodged against the outdoor complex since it opened. In the desert heat, temperatures in the tents have reportedly reached into the 130s. Tent City has been condemned by numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International USA, which Schultz previously led. “There is fundamentally no excuse for keeping people out in this heat,” said Schulz. “It is a violation of international standards and of fundamental human decency.”
Arpaio led the delegation through the gates of the women’s jail. Gravel walkways separated concert slabs covered by army-green tents. Under the tents were rows of metal bunk beds.
Inmates approached the visitors, dressed in black-white-striped pants and shirts with “Sheriff’s Inmate” written in block letters across the back. They wore the jail’s trademark pink socks.
The group also wound through an attached men’s facility, called Tents Jail, where inmates also wore pink socks. Some men could be seen in pink boxer shorts. Many had pink ID bracelets around their wrists.
Prisoners swarmed around the visitors, trying to quickly relate a list of grievances as guard urged the visitors along. Inmates spoke of “horrible” food that contained maggots and rocks. A kitchen worker said ingredients were often expired, and the kitchen was inhabited by roaches and rats. They had no cold water, several said. A man told of a dust storm recently gusting through the encampment. The inmates were not allowed to put down their tent flaps, and dust stung his eyes. “Why couldn’t they put the tent flaps down?” a visitor asked. “They’re just mean,” the inmate said. “They pick on us.”
Not all complained. One male inmate said, “It’s not the Holiday Inn, but I’m not suffering.” Some women spoke of how they like working on the female chain gang. The group leaves the facility to pick up trash. On Thursdays, a member of the chain gang said, they dig graves for the indigent.
As Arpaio walked through, many inmates approached him with postcards and asked him to sign them. They bear pictures of inmates and the tents, and have slogans on them such as “Hello from Sunny Arizona!” and “Keep America Beautiful!” above a picture of the female chain gang at work. Some inmates send the postcards home to their families. One man had his signed for his grandmother, whom he said is a big fan of Tent City. A woman who will soon be released said she had hers signed as a personal reminder that she didn’t want to come back.
Guards were positioned near the perimeter fences with shotguns. They were loaded with “less than lethal rounds,” an officer explained.
In the mess hall, Arpaio showed examples of the two meals a day that inmates are served. He unwrapped a “brunch,” which he said was served around 11 am. It contained slices of turkey, oranges, rolls, and cookies. A dinner plate was heaped with a brown gruel, called soy lentil stew. Beside it, were broccoli, apple sauce, a roll, and cookies. Several dinner plates were laid on the metal tables, and Arpaio urged visitors to try the food. Morales ate a forkful of stew, as did Arpaio.“It’s a good recipe,” Arpaio said, later adding, “It’s a little bland. It could use some salt.”
Arpaio said that he soon plans to begin charging inmates for their meals, likely $1 a day.
In the Mess Hall, Arpaio responded dismissively to any and all accusations from the visiting delegation. Schultz asked about the reports of maggots. Arapio waved his hand and said you could find that in restaurant kitchens.
Morales asked about the $50 million Arizona taxpayers have paid out in lawsuits against the Sheriff’s office relating to civil rights violations and jail conditions since Arpaio became sheriff in 1993. Arpaio said it was more like $30 million, and that’s the “nature of doing business.” He urged visitors to compare the numbers to other agencies to be fair.
“Do you think you’re treated unfairly?” Morales asked.
“It goes with the territory,” said Arpaio. He later added that he is accountable to the people of Maricopa County and has been reelected five times.
After the tour, Arpaio and the delegation held a press conference outside the jail gates. Morales said, “I am saddened and appalled that this kind of thing happens in my country. It is degrading and mean.”
Black, of the UCC, said “Over the years, I’ve visited inmates thoughout the country. I’ve never seen anything like this. . . . It hurts me to think this has gone on as long as it has. More people should visit this place to see what is going on. I don’t think they would feel this is justice as we understand it.”
Schulz was questioned about how the jail compared to others he has visited internationally. He reiterated how the excessive heat violates international conventions. “China is in violation. Myanmar is in violation. And Maricipa County is in violation,” he said.
Takahashi Morris said, “As I looked in the eyes of the inmates, I couldn’t help thinking about my father’s family held in an interment in Poston, Arizona,” she said, referring to the Japanese internment camps during World War II. “They were also put in inhumane conditions in the name of safety.”
“No person should be housed in the heat of the desert in a tent,” said Frederick-Gray. “We have been asleep to allow Tent City to be here for 20 years.” She said the culture of cruelty that has allowed Tent City to exist has also led to unjust laws such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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