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New sheriff in town to close Joe Arpaio’s outdoor Tent City jail, of pink underwear fame

Watch: New sheriff shutting down Arpaio's tent city (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

In Arizona’s Tent City jail, “America’s toughest sheriff” forced his inmates to wear pink underwear, shower with pink towels and sleep on pink sheets. Their meals were meatless and their jumpsuits striped in wide black and white. The only barrier between their bodies and the scorching summer sun was the weathered green canvas of surplus Korean War military tents.

Everything they did at Tent City was outside, because Tent City was outside, too.

The desert complex — erected in 1993 — became Joe Arpaio’s signature achievement during his 24 years as Maricopa County sheriff, the physical manifestation of his Wild West, no-nonsense mentality that made him a national celebrity and treasured ally of President Trump.

But it also cast a dark mark on Phoenix and attracted criticism from civil rights groups who called Arpaio’s methods needlessly harsh.

In November, voters ousted Arpaio, a Republican, who faces trial for criminal contempt of court for ignoring a court order in a racial profiling case involving his notorious immigration patrols.

Paul Penzone, a Democrat and retired Phoenix police sergeant, was elected on the promise of rolling back existing law enforcement policies he viewed as purposeless and self-aggrandizing.

Now he’s following through.

First, Penzone ditched the pink panties, then launched an investigation into the practicality of Tent City.

On Tuesday, the new sheriff in town announced he would shut it down completely.

“This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost efficient, and it is not tough on criminals,” he said at a news conference. “That may have been the intent when it was first opened. But this facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public. Starting today, that circus ends and these tents come down.”

Within 45 to 60 days, authorities plan to transfer at least half of the current inmates to the region’s five other detention centers, Penzone said. It could take several months to empty the facility because many of those staying at Tent City are in work release programs, which means they come and go for jobs outside the facility.

The hundreds of men and women who lived there are people who have already been convicted of a crime, but they are not necessarily hardened criminals. They’re there for low-level misdemeanor offenses — many for DUI convictions.

During his campaign, Penzone hinted that he would shutter Tent City, but often emphasized the importance of basing that decision not on conjecture or gut instincts, but data and fact. He assembled an advisory committee with members from across the political spectrum to conduct a “methodical review” of the economic and safety challenges at Tent City.

Their conclusion was unanimous, which Penzone said proved what he already knew: Arpaio’s signature jail was nothing more than a political stunt that served his swaggering persona more than the taxpayers.

Closing Tent City will save Maricopa County an estimated $4.5 million, Penzone said, and help buoy staffing at the department’s other strapped detention centers. Safety and economic efficiency remain the sheriff’s priority, he said.

“There is no empirical evidence to show that this facility in any way deters crime,” Penzone said.

Arpaio told the Arizona Republic: “That’s his call, okay? Not mine. I’m not going to second-guess him,” he said. “If I was still the sheriff, those tents would never be gone.”

The former sheriff, who famously launched an investigation into President Barack Obama’s birth certificate that garnered praise from Trump, first opened Tent City as a cost-effective way to ease overcrowding in the county’s jails.

Over its 24-year life, though, it morphed into a symbol of Arpaio’s showy public image.

“Everything I do is geared to send a message to all the people who live in Maricopa County, that if you do something wrong, you’re going to end up in the tents,” Arpaio once said.

But at the news conference, Penzone and the chairman of the advisory committee, former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods, said that the tough-on-crime idea portrayed by Arpaio to the public was a farce.

When interviewing inmates at Tent City, the committee was surprised to learn that many preferred the open-air facility over others with cramped cells and little outdoor time, Grant said. Staying at Tent City was a choice the inmates made, not a mandate, and at any time they had the ability to opt into an indoor facility.

The revelation, Grant said, was a “good news, bad news” situation.

It was good, he said, that “we weren’t guilty” of the mistreatment the county had been accused of.

“The bad news is that the rest of the country thinks that we’re that sort of person, who would abuse and humiliate our prisoners and put them in such harsh situations,” Grant said.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the conditions that led them to shut down Tent City. It was the finances.

The jail was built to hold 2,100 inmates but never housed more than 1,700, Grant said. New criminal justice practices — like relying on house arrest and deferment programs — cut into the incarceration rates in Maricopa County.

For the last several years, the average population has dwindled to between 700 and 800. The operating costs for the facility remained the same, no matter the inmate count.

“Economically, it’s a problem now,” Woods said.

Authorities hope shuttering Tent City will serve as a step toward rebranding their county and state.

“The days of Arizona being a place, I hope, where people are humiliated or embarrassed or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizement of anybody or anything are over,” Grant said. “They had no place in our community. They didn’t reflect our community, and we’re moving on.”

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