The 10 Worst Prisons in America: Tent City

Mother Jones

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Tent City is Joe Arapaio’s baby Jack Kurtz/

Part 3 in an 11-part series.

#1: ADX (federal supermax)

#2: Polunsky Unit (TX Death Row)

#3: Tent City Jail (Phoenix)

Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We’ve compiled this subjective list of America’s 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with criminal-justice reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.

We will be rolling out profiles of all of the contenders in the coming days, complete with photos and video. Our third contender you’re probably already familiar with, thanks to a proudly defiant boss who takes pride in humiliating his heavily Latino jail population, and pinching pennies at the expense of their humane treatment.

3] Tent City Jail (Phoenix, Arizona)

Number of prisoners: ~2,000

Who’s in charge: Joe Arpaio, warden and sheriff of Maricopa County

The basics: No jail is more closely associated with its jailer than Tent City, the 20-year-old brainchild of Maricopa County’s infamous tough-guy sheriff Joe Arpaio. In 1993, to save the county the cost of building a new jail, Arpaio set up hundreds of Army surplus tents from the Korean War era and used them to house prisoners. Tent City residents now number more than 2,000, most of them awaiting trial. (See this county press release (PDF) for an event celebrating its 20th year.) The tents are unheated in winter and uncooled in summer—temperatures inside them have been clocked as high as 145 degrees. A few permanent buildings suffice for showers and meals, and a guard tower displays a permanent “vacancy” sign, warning passersby to stay in line. Arpaio himself has called the place a “concentration camp,” while Tent City’s prisoners have gone so far as to cobble together a survival guide.

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The 10 Worst Prisons in America: Tent City

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