The Tent City prison in Arizona is set to close after over 20 years in operation. Criminal justice reform is receiving multi-partisan support in the US.
The former Republican Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona has been a long-standing figure of controversy. Joe Arpaio held the elected office as the Sheriff from 1993-2017, and is well known for some of his controversial actions. Over the years, he has hit the headlines — within the US and beyond — for some of his radical jail detention policies.
Arpaio’s name is back in the news following the announcement that his Democratic successor, Paul Penzone, is set to close the controversial Tent City. The prison is located in southwest Phoenix. The population of the institution has reduced since it was established in 1993, and today houses less than 1,000 inmates. The prison will not close imminently and could take up to six months.
Arpaio was a high profile casualty of the November 2016 elections, and while the political map of the USA turned predominately red after the polls closed, the man once dubbed “America’s toughest Sheriff” was ousted from office. With just over 55% of the total vote, Penzone was elected to be the 37th Sheriff of Maricopa County. Many commentators have attributed Arpaio’s defeat at the polls as a consequence of his immigration policies, including instances of sweep searches in neighborhoods predominately populated by Hispanics.
Tent City has long been a subject of controversy, and many organizations have condemned the facility as an affront to basic human rights. The prison has also featured on television, including in an episode of Banged Up Abroad that was featured on the National Geographic Channel in 2013. Tent City also came under the spotlight when British journalist, Alex Reynolds, went undercover and posed as an inmate. Reynolds has worked undercover in many jails around the world, and proffered his opinion that his experience at Tent City was wholly negative.
Images and footage of inmates behind bared wire fences, exposed to the sun and other elements in Arizona, while sleeping under tents, have continued to spark outcry from many across society. Condemnation for Tent City has also led to protests about its existence. For example, in 2010, it was reported that circa 10,000 immigrant rights supporters clashed with law enforcement officers outside the prison. Additionally, in 2012, thousands of opponents of Arpaio staged a rally outside Tent City.
Despite much rhetoric over the years that Tent City ought to close on humanitarian grounds, the new Sheriff’s public statement with regard to the prisons pending closure is being justified through an alternative lens. Sheriff Penzone has referred to Tent City as a “circus,” asserting that it is not only expensive to run, but is not an adequate deterrent to prevent criminal activity. Furthermore, he has asserted that the environment is not harsh on inmates, and is a facility that is favored, rather than viewed as a worse punishment than other indoor facilities.
Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have been a long-standing critic of facilities that house inmates in Maricopa County. In 2003, the ACLU were involved in a lawsuit against the conditions that inmates experienced while incarcerated under Arpaio’s watch. At the time, the ACLU issued a press release, asserting that the treatment of prisoners was a constitutional issue, and cited concerns over allegations of some inmates being physically beaten. While the ACLU welcome Penzone’s move, they remain deeply concerned by the conditions that inmates experience in other Maricopa County jails.
The decision to close Tent City is set against the backdrop of a multi-partisan effort to reform the criminal justice system. While Trump spoke frequently about the importance of being tough on issues relating to law and order during the election cycle, many lawmakers — across the US — are in favor of reforms, including reducing incarceration rates. It cannot be ignored that the US population is roughly 5% of the world’s population, yet is home to circa 25% of the world’s prisoners. Despite the divergent differences from parties such as the Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians, for example, reforming the system is certainly one issue where there is some convergence.
Republican Governor Chris Christie has repeatedly vowed to tackle opiate addiction in New Jersey, and has publicly supported measures to expunge the records of some non-violent persons, with a criminal history, in order to help them “reclaim their lives”. The consequences of having a criminal record is far reaching — preventing many from obtaining job interviews, let alone securing employment. In a similar vein, persons who are sent to jail for crimes related to substance abuse — instead of receiving therapy or adequate medical treatment — can end up being locked in a vicious circle, rather than a virtuous one. Many inmates continue to use substances that are illegal contraband, and end up being released still addicted — increasing the chances of re-offending.
Recent documentaries such as 13th (2017) not only explored the issue of race in the criminal justice system, but documented the exponential growth of the US prison population in recent decades. The documentary also challenged the presidency of Bill Clinton, including the rapid growth of Americans behind bars as a consequence of mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws. The 1994 Crime Bill has widely been criticized, and Hillary’s support for her husband’s legislation, during his presidency, dogged her during her own campaign. Many critics have cited that it contributed to mass incarceration, and prisons driven by profit.
While it is imperative that some offenders are imprisoned for certain serious illegal activity, it does not make social, political, or fiscal sense to send so many Americans to prison, especially when there are issues surrounding access to educational and occupational development, evidence of systematic abuse, problems related to overcrowding, adequate access to physical and mental health services, and concerns over the arbitrary use of solitary confinement. Furthermore, many are calling for the increased use of non-custodial sentences for some non-violent offenders.
While the overwhelming majority of people in favor of reform are not calling for our prisons to rival the luxury of the Beverly Hills Hotel, there is a growing common consensus that prisons ought to be safer, and aid the rehabilitation of our nation’s offenders. Considering that many of our inmates will be released at some point in their lives, it is crucial that they have the tools and capacity to become productive, law-abiding members of society. This is an issue that affects all of us, across all fifty states. It is important that the criminal justice system is reformed and attention is paid to the condition of offenders when they are eventually released. Having so many people released from some prisons where they may have been abused, spent relatively long periods of time in solitary, or with little skills to obtain a job, is a recipe for disaster, and a recipe for repeat offending. Prison is meant to be a punishment, but rehabilitation needs to be at the heart of the policy decision-making process.
Further calls for criminal justice reform during the Trump era are likely to continue, and be a subject of wide societal debate across the US.
Feature image: DonkeyHotey (CC)