Inmates At Arizona’s Tent City Jail ‘Left To Rot’ During Extreme Heatwave

Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail in Maricopa County, Arizona, has been likened to a concentration camp as inmates were “left to rot” during the extreme heatwave.

Tent City Jail in Phoenix is an outdoor, canvas-tent prison compound where prisoners are left to rot in 120° heat. Phoenix is in the middle of a heat wave, and temperatures are forecast to reach at least 120 degrees F or even higher; but still hundreds of inmates are being subjected to inhumane conditions.

The Daily Beast reported that current temperatures are so extreme in Phoenix that even flights have been canceled. But inmates at this notorious outdoor jail are expected to endure conditions that are too dangerous for planes.

With Arizona’s jails already packed, Tent City was created as an overflow site for Maricopa County. The outdoor complex was built in 1993 to reduce crowding in the city’s jail, and have been used ever since to house sentenced and convicted non-violent offenders.

The simple, fenced-in facility has housed up to 1,700 inmates in canvas tents, while temperatures raged both above and below safe limits.

Human rights organizations have condemned the facility, but infamous former Maricopa sheriff Joe Arpaio was not concerned: he publicly joked that Tent City was a “concentration camp.”

Fortunately for inmates, Arpaio failed in his 2016 re-election bid and his successor has vowed to have the facility removed by the end of 2017. However, in the meantime, inmates of Tent City are forced to suffer in heatwave temperatures of up to 120°F. The sheriff’s office has now announced that the facility will be closed within six months.

Joaquin Enriquez, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said that most of the inmates are only at Tent City at night.

“As of today, there are 380 work furlough inmates remaining in Tent City. Work furlough means they go to their day jobs and return at the end of their workday to sleep in the Tents. Almost all of these inmates are in Tent City only at night. We estimate that approximately 50 of the 380 will be on site in the daytime – meaning that they work either a second or third shift at their job.”

But inmates are still forced to survive the nights in dangerously high temperatures throughout the heatwave. For example, on Tuesday, the temperature reached 90° just before sunrise, and the thick canvas of Tent City structures are renowned for trapping heat even while outside temperatures fall.

According to Enriquez, the jail implements new policies during extreme heat waves.

“During times like these – high heat warnings – inmates and Detention Officers are given unlimited access to ice water. Our Detention Officers pay close attention to the conditions of Officers and inmates. Per standard operating procedures, if an inmate develops a medical condition due to heat or any other factor, the individual is transferred to Correctional Health Services.”

Prison reform activists are not convinced.

Donna Leone Hamm is Director of the Arizona-based organization Middle Ground Prison Reform, and is unimpressed with the claims of “ice water” being provided to the inmates.

“I understand that the concession is being made to provide as much ice water as the inmates want, but although the jail advertises that they’re doing that, we don’t know if it’s actually happening, because the demand for ice water might exceed the supply. It also means that the deputies have to constantly refill whatever containers they’re supplying the water in, so it may not happen exactly as advertised.”

Hamm added that extreme conditions such as these could very quickly prove dangerous for inmates who require medication, or who have other health issues. In particular, anyone who had a medical condition that could be “exacerbated by the heat” could be in severe danger.

Arizona officials are fully aware of what occurs when people are forced outside in dangerous heat conditions. A 48-year-old woman died during a 107 degree heatwave in 2009 at Perryville, a state prison complex, after she was locked in an outdoor cage for four hours.

Patricia Powell had been isolated in an outdoor enclosure after asking to see a psychiatrist. Even though prison policy states that inmates should not remain in the cage for more than half an hour, Powell was kept outside for four hours. During that time, she developed first and second degree burns, and finally died from heat-related complications.

Her autopsy revealed a core body temperature of 108 degrees, however it could even have been higher.

“The autopsy stated that the only reason they wrote down 108 was because that’s the highest the thermometer would go.”

Investigations after the inmate’s death showed that the deceased’s cage was 20 feet from where the guards were stationed in an air-conditioned glass room. Somehow, however, the guards managed to claim that they did not know the inmate was under distress.

Joe Arpaio has always been fully aware of inmates’ discomfort during heat waves, and, in fact, was quite callous towards them. In 2011, a heatwave saw outside temperatures soaring to 118 degrees, with temperatures inside the tents reaching 145, but Arpaio showed no concern towards his inmates.

“What am I going to do, take them out of jail because it’s too hot? Our men and women are working out here in this heat, too. Does anyone feel sorry for them?”

Arpaio made similar comments to inmates during a 2003 heatwave when outside temperatures reached 107 and temperatures of 138 were measured inside the tents.

“It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths.”

Temperatures in Phoenix this week are expected to rise 13 degrees above the dangerous heatwave of 2003.

Vice News reported that it is so hot in Arizona that dozens of flights have been canceled, tap water is running warm, and meteorologists cooked bacon and eggs on the sidewalk.

Executive Chief of Detention, Tracy Haggard, told Vice News that inmates are offered “unlimited access to ice water and iced towels.”

“Every hour, 24/7, we monitor the physical condition of everyone in the facility.”

And according to jail officials, inmates were able to purchase sunblock from the jail vending machine.


Tent City became a mark of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 23-year rule over Maricopa County, which came to a halt when he lost an election to Paul Penzone in 2016. Arpaio declared himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” and was known for his controversial and inventive approaches to punishment and law enforcement. This included mandating that inmates wear pink.

Penzone’s intention is to get rid of Tent City once and for all. In fact, 400 inmates have already been transferred to other jail facilities.

RT reported that many inmates housed in Tent City work on chain gangs. Doing landscape and roadside clean-up, both male and female inmates work 30-day programs.

Rights groups say the jail is humiliating and inhumane. According to Eleanor Eisenberg of the ACLU, Sheriff Arpaio is proud of the inhumane conditions of his jail.

Over the years, Arpaio has been accused of various types of misconduct, including misuse of funds, abuse of power, unlawful enforcement of immigration laws, failure to investigate sex crimes, and election law violations. Injuries and deaths in Arpaio’s jails have cost Maricopa County taxpayers $43 million in settlement and court expenses.

In fact, Arpaio’s operations were reviewed by a federal court monitor due to complaints about racial profiling, resulting in the U.S. Department of Justice concluding that Arpaio oversaw the worst pattern of racial profiling in United States history. A suit was subsequently filed against Arpaio for unlawful discriminatory police conduct.

Arpaio is due to appear in court next Monday after being charged with criminal contempt of court; he faces charges of ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop enforcing federal immigration laws. He could receive six months in jail if convicted.

According to recently-elected Paul Penzone, the facility was not cost efficient, was not a deterrent, and was not tough on criminals. It was, though, a circus atmosphere for the general public.

“Starting today, that circus ends and these tents come down.”

[Featured Image by John Moore/Getty Images]