What the Shutdown of “Tent City” Jail Says About Grassroots Power

In Phoenix, Arizona, temperatures in the summer of 2016 reached a record high of 118 degrees. At least four deaths were attributed to the Arizona heat one particular weekend in 2016.

Imagine being incarcerated in a jail that is entirely outdoors in such temperatures, while wearing a striped jumpsuit.

Up until now, these were the exact circumstances of people incarcerated at “Tent City,” an outdoor jail in Maricopa County, Phoenix. But all of that has changed this week, as the newly-elected Maricopa Sheriff Paul Penzone has finally started listening to the voices of his community and announced that he will close the compound over six months.

This promise to shut down Tent City stems from the efforts of grassroots organizations working for migrant justice — spearheaded by the Puente Human Rights Movement and fueled by the power-building and organizing of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA). As the Co-Executive Director of LUCHA, an organization grounded in racial and economic justice, I believe this victory is an example of the power for change of immigrant communities of color.

For decades, Tent City represented the ongoing struggles that Latino communities endure within the US justice system. It was opened in 1993 by Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County. Arpaio himself proudly called Tent City a “concentration camp.” He even took reporters on tours of the facility to boost his image as the “toughest sheriff in America.” Arpaio may have even been glad to find that Mother Jones included Tent City in its “America’s Ten Worst Prisons Project.”

Most of those at Tent City haven’t even brought their case to a judge — they are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of anything. Most are incarcerated for low-level offenses, like driving without a license. And yet, they are brutalized in a jail where simply being outdoors in triple-digit heat is a form of punishment alone. Moreover, men, women, and teenagers regularly worked in chain gangs — they would literally be chained together while performing physical labor outdoors.

It is frightening to know that when families were being raided, there was a possibility that they would be detained at Tent City, where they could be abused in scorching heat.

And yet, throughout the decades that Tent City had stayed open, the violence of incarceration remained a joke to Arpaio, who attempted to humiliate inmates by prescribing them pink underwear, pink towels, and pink bed sheets.

Tent City is also an enormous waste of public resources. Sheriff Penzone has noted that closing the jail will save the county $4.5 million.

The outdoor jail is fueled only by bigotry and lacks any kind of moral or economic justification. It tears families apart rather than rehabilitating community members, and it does so in a way that drains public dollars.

Tent City is part of a bigger picture, one in which Latino people are regularly profiled and violated because of systemic racism — and more specifically the system of mass incarceration. In 2012, the Department of Justice filed a formal legal complaint against Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office; the grievances include the assault of a pregnant woman, the stalking of multiple Latina women, widespread use of racial slurs, and unlawful detention.

But this is not just about Tent City. Take a look at the national statistics: one out of every 36 Latino men is incarcerated, compared to one out of every 106 white men. And Latina women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated.

Arizona has the sixth highest incarceration rate in the nation with almost 43,000 people in its state prisons alone — an all time high for the state and still climbing. $1 billion is spent on state prisons alone or 11 percent of the state budget, not even counting the rest of the “public safety” budget.

Latinos, who make up a third of Arizona’s population are disproportionately impacted by this mass incarceration. Arizona has the highest incarceration rate of western states and the US has by far the highest incarceration rate among nations, with 2.2 million people in cages and 100 million criminalized with “records.”

The fight to end mass incarceration is connected to the fight for a living wage, affordable housing, adequate health care and beyond. It is a fight to make our communities whole and to keep our families safe.

Over the last year, LUCHA has had many victories: we successfully led and organized to raise the minimum wage to 12 dollars by 2020; joined the Bazta Arpaio campaign and helped remove Arpaio from office; helped elect Ana Tovar, the first Latina mayor of Tolleson, Arizona; assisted in registering 150,000 new voters, led by One Arizona Coalition and Arizona Center for Empowerment; and helped 249 individuals apply for DACA and 386 people for citizenship.

Community power is a force to be reckoned with.

The shutdown of Tent City is a small step towards tackling the system of mass incarceration that targets marginalized folks like low-income people and communities of color. It’s a small step towards a more just world. Tent City tried to take away the futures of our families. We’re taking it back.

Tu lucha, es mi lucha.

Our fight continues!