Rising high above the Arizona desert, looking down on a sea of men and women in black-and-white prison stripes (and wearing the mandatory pink underwear), a pink neon sign flashes the word "VACANCY" from a 50-foot tall "SkyWatch" tower manned by armed guards with semi automatic rifles. In the interest of journalism--and that fact that I have been fighting my DUI for the last eight months and may end up here--I drove out to the Maricopa County Jail Complex on the west side of Phoenix down near the river bottom to see what was going on in Tent City.
America's toughest jail--Tent City in Phoenix, Arizona--puts out a welcome mat of tall razor wire fences with the added touch of "stun" electricity, facial recognition computer software for inmate identification, K-9 killer dogs and security guards carrying multiple armaments. While it's become "the crib" for drug dealers, car-jackers, and petty thieves alike, its arms are wide open and welcoming to anyone arrested in Maricopa County for a DUI.
Inside this smoldering latrine of human excrement, more than 1,400 prisoners live in Korean War-era army surplus tents, roasting in temperatures of 125 degrees in the summer and as low at 15 degrees during winter. No matter how many criminals are locked up here, the vacancy sign is never turned off.
Instead, if prisoner's numbers increase, jail supremo Sheriff Joe Arpaio simply orders extra tents. Says the self-proclaimed Toughest Sheriff in America in one of his many media conferences: "I will build tents to house 100,000 people before I ever let anybody out of jail early. If I have to, I will put up tents from here to Mexico." All right then.
Arizona has the harshest DUI laws in the United States. Not one other state comes remotely close to the severity of the penalties or the litmus test of whether you are legally drunk (.08 and you're gone). It has gotten to the point where you cannot have one PBR with granny and then drive home. If your blood metabolizes slowly after one drink and you are pulled over, you will be arrested and face a mandatory minimum of one to ten days in Tent City, $1,500 in fines plus legal fees, 16 hours of alcohol education classes at some asbestos-laced office only offered on weekends, a mandatory 90-day suspension of your driver's license, and the indignity of an interlock device installed in your car for one year. (You blow into a tube on that baby to start your car and then every 15 minutes thereafter to keep it running).
On my first visit to check out what hopefully will not be my home soon, I slowly maneuvered my car through a massive and mostly empty asphalt parking lot and walked up to an un-landscaped area of concrete picnic tables laid out in the dirt under the desert sun. Tent City's imposing 20-foot-tall sold concrete entrance gate emblazoned with the badge of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office greeted me and the other few people who waited nervously for their 24-hour-or-longer sentences.
At the appointed time, everyone rose, got in line, and waited for the gate of Hades to open. I stood next to one of the future prisoners, a pretty hot 20-year-old girl who, after breaking up with her boyfriend, decided to take a drive through a school zone at 50 miles per hour after consuming six vodka and Red Bulls and three Oxycontins. She told me she had been standing here for an hour just waiting for the "hotel" to open its doors. She clenched a roll of quarters and two magazines. The quarters, I learned, get food out of the vending machines, and magazines and soft cover books are permitted for reading to break up the torturous monotony of your jail stay. While there are many things not permitted inside--cell phones, hard back books, iPods, watches, jewelry, etc.--the one that strikes me as utterly cruel is the ban on porn.
Killing time by staring at one super fine lady ass isn't very tough, but three and a half hours of waiting in 115-degree heat kind of wears on you. Every time I pulled out my camera I was strictly warned to put it back--all these photos you're seeing here came from the Sheriff's Information Office. At about the 210-minute mark, a rather obese female sheriff finally opened the gate and began checking identification of those in line. (As if someone would actually come here for the sheer thrill of it. Though wait, I guess that's what I was doing.) Unfortunately for the chica I spoke to, she was about to experience the first harsh reality of Tent City: no hoodie permitted on your sweats. Without even a warning, the guard took scissors that were hanging on her gun belt and chopped the hood off the hottie's $185 Juicy sweats, leaving her shocked and in tears as it fell to the dirt. After the ID inspection, the guard yelled loudly in her best "don't fuck with me" voice for everyone to form a straight line, to stop talking, and stay five feet off the perimeter fence or get fried. The prisoners then marched single-file into Tent City to the extremely loud sound of a TV playing The Weather Channel as the imposing wall slammed closed on the world they once knew.
Over the course of three days I spoke to several people on their way out. Dazed and confused would be an accurate description. An experience that was revolting, harsh, and frightening was a good day there. People are mixed together in a sea of helpless humanity in which fear, suffocating smell, loud noise, and intimidation are the order of the day. It doesn't matter if you are male or female. Prisoners in for just 24 hours are forced to mingle with those who may be in for a year or more, such as non-violent felons, drug dealers, forgers, thieves, and domestic violence abusers. Stun fences with razor wire draped over the top also separate men and women, so if you think you can get some trim while in the slammer just forget about it unless you can thread a very thin, eight-foot-long pecker across electrified fences and find a willing participant to receive it. You can see girl prisoners and fantasize, but you'll never get close enough to even get a whiff of their precious.
Most time is spent lying on the cots in the tents, sweating in the summer and freezing in the winter. Some people try to sleep at night but there's the ever-present fear of someone stealing your coins or beating you senseless while you snooze, or the fact that the guards take great enjoyment in blasting the volume on the TV. These guards also enjoy buoyant marching songs and Newt Gingrich speeches, which are blasted through multiple speakers at odd hours of the night. No one eats the food, which is the same offering for the two meals a day you get and described as a disgusting green bologna with rotting white bread. Sheriff Joe brags that he has "cut the cost of food down for prisoners to $.70 per meal and that I makes the prisoners pay for it. Best of all it's less then what I spend on the guard dogs." One prisoner told me it was like looking at fresh green boogers that had just been blown onto a plate out of a six-year-old's runny and snotty nose. (By the way, the average cost of food in a US prison is about $1.70 a meal and they get three of those per day.) Thus, the vending machines are where all the actions is at (like the water coolers of an office) and rumor has it that Arpaio owns a hidden interest in the company that profits from the prisoners; thus the raison d'etre for the revolting meals.
Complain too much and you end up on the chain gang, usually cleaning roadsides of trash or digging graves in the municipal cemetery and then dropping the bodies in the ground. Sheriff Joe doesn't discriminate, boasting that he has the only female chain gang in the United States. As for TV, you get the Weather Channel or Disney. Asked why the Weather Channel, the media whore responded, "So prisoners will know how hot it's gonna be while they are working on my chain gangs." He cancelled coffee because it has no nutritional value and got rid of weights because he doesn't want anyone in shape to fight the guards. When inmates complained, he told them, "This isn't The Ritz Carlton. If you don't like it, don't come back."
Most prisoners, however, never want to come back and do their best not to eat and drink, as a visit to the shitter is another experience all to itself. The stench is present in the parking lot. The bathrooms frequently break down, and as one guard told me, it may take up to three days for someone to "get the turds flowing again." You do the math...1,400 people having to shit and piss in basically a few holes in the ground that don't work..I'd rather party with Son of Sam and Dennis Rader the BTK "killer" when they are super pissed off then take a leak in Tent City.
But there is a sort of democracy and thus a social order to Tent City as it plays out before you, because the jail spares no one. As Sheriff Joe says, "celebrities are always welcome" and most recently "guests" have included past basketball great and current TNT commentator Charles Barkley, former World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson, and rapper DMX. Soon to check in are high profile DUI's like Phoenix Mercury superstar Diana Taurasi, and Phoenix Sun's guard Jason Richardson.
It's been said that once you come here, the experience is like an STD that stays with you forever. Tent City is hell on earth and if I lose my legal battle, part two of this saga will be written from the inside...and I promise you, I WILL sneak in porn.