Twenty Years Of In-Tents Treatment: How Sheriff Joe Arpaio Put Racism On Display

On August 2, 1993, Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio set up a so-called Tent City, an outdoor jail with electric fencing that can hold more than two thousand immigrant detainees. Friday marks the 20th anniversary of the Tent City and as he has done in the past, Arpaio will mark the anniversary with a celebration. But for those who have been subject to public display, humiliation, and severe living conditions, its legacy is anything but celebratory.

Arpaio purportedly started the outdoor jail to deal with overcrowding. A press release stated, “Sheriff Arpaio never wants an officer to hesitate arresting someone based on the idea that there’s no room in jail. In fact, he put up a huge pink neon vacancy sign above Tent City to prove he’s serious.”

But because the heat can rise to 137 degrees during the summer months in Phoenix, Arizona, the tent structure serves primarily as brutal physical punishment. Arpaio says he reserves punishment for those who have been convicted, yet the population consists of mostly pre-trial inmates, some of whom have low-level offenses like driving without a license. As he has said in the past, Arpaio is an “equal opportunity guy, I lock up everybody.”

Humiliation of detainees through dehumanization has become an acceptable practice. Arpaio once marched the Tent City detainees through the streets of Phoenix. Detainees are forced to wear pink underwear. Arpaio even went so far as to market the dehumanizing apparel by selling a commercial version. Arpaio often puts inmates on display through tours available to the public.


Unfortunately, the Tent City that Arpaio once characterized as a “concentration camp” is not an accomplishment of prison population control, but an exercise in indiscriminate racism. The two decades long existence of Arpaio’s Tent City contributes to its authority as an institution that helps to strengthen the state’s legalized racism. What Tent City has become is a physical embodiment of a culture that embraces punishment of Latinos for their skin color and criminalization of non-criminal detainees.

According to his website, Tent City’s success led law enforcement officials in Nevada and Florida to take the practice of setting up a Tent City into consideration.