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Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio responds to Tent City closure

(AP Photos)

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone’s decision to shut down the controversial Tent City will end up costing the county more money in the long run, former Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Tuesday.

Arpaio held a press conference Tuesday night, where he called Tent City a “cost-saving operation” after Penzone said closing the jail will save the county about $4.5 million per year.

“Let them build more jails,” Arpaio said, adding that it will cost “millions of dollars to handle all the people who will be coming into the jail systems.”

Penzone announced earlier on Tuesday that he would make steps to close the jail after his 12-person committee took several months to review data, interview Maricopa County officials and tour the tents before it ultimately made its unanimous closure recommendation.

“Starting today, the circus ends and the tents come down,” Penzone said. “This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost-efficient and it is not tough on criminals,” he said. “That may have been the intent when it was first opened and there was a need, but this facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public.”

During his press conference, Arpaio spent a considerable amount of time hitting back at Penzone’s “circus” comment, calling it an “insult to circus workers.”

“It’s not a circus — it’s not a circus. That’s insulting to all circus people,” Arpaio said. “It’s disgusting, calling that a circus,” later adding that he hopes “that he didn’t mean it — maybe everything I do is a circus, but let’s not insult the circus.”

“I gave the inmates a free concert — is that a circus?” he said. “[Pamela Anderson] came when the food was changed, that’s not a circus.”

Arpaio spent 24 years in office, gaining the title of Maricopa County’s longest-serving sheriff and earning a legacy that was highlighted by the implementation of Tent City.

“I’m proud of the fact that I started this,” he said. “Once you get those tents down, you will never get them up again because the city of Phoenix has to issue a permit — Do you think the city will issue a permit when half of the city council hates the tents? They will be gone forever and that’s sad.”

Penzone said the more than 700 prisoners in the jail will be transferred to either the Estrella or Durango jails, with some of the population would be moved in the next 45 to 60 days. But the sheriff said it could take months for a new work furlough system to be worked out.

Arpaio opened Tent City in 1993 as a way of easing jail overcrowding. The barbed-wire-surrounded compound was part of a broader campaign by Arpaio to enact get-tough measures in his jails, such as banning cigarettes, creating inmate chain gangs and dressing them in old-time striped prison uniforms.

The tents were popular among voters who believed jail is supposed to be a difficult place to live. Critics said the complex was a way for Arpaio to garner media attention and contributed to a culture of cruelty within his jails.

Grant Woods, a former state attorney general who led a committee that recommended Tent City’s closure, said the complex reflected poorly on people living in metro Phoenix.

“The rest of the country thinks we are that sort of person who would abuse and humiliate prisoners and put them in such harsh situations,” Woods said.

The complex, which has a maximum capacity of 2,000, jailed 1,700 inmates at its peak, but in recent years only 700 to 800 people were housed there. Penzone said prisoners will not be set free as a result of his decision and instead will do their time in the county’s other jails, which have enough room for them.

Tent City was the location of a 1996 riot by hundreds of inmates. They armed themselves with poles from their tents, set fires and took several jail officers hostage. Eight officers were injured.

Arpaio touted the tents as a cost-saving measure, but the tents provided Arpaio with fodder for countless news releases and TV interviews over the years. Tent City also was a fixture in Arpaio’s stump speeches.

In a 2009 address to an anti-illegal immigration group in Texas, Arpaio reflected on TV crews that came from across the world to shoot footage of Tent City. He said he came up with the idea of hanging a thermometer in Tent City so reporters could see he wasn’t lying about the heat.

“Actually, there’s a trick. If you go higher and hit the canvass, you gain about 20 degrees,” Arpaio said, drawing laughter from the crowd when he explained that the ploy raised the temperature reading to 142 degrees.

Even though Arpaio insisted the complex was safe and run smoothly, Tent City was a regular target of criticism.

A jury awarded a $948,000 verdict in favor of Jeremy Flanders for a permanent brain damage he suffered in 1996 when several hooded inmates pulled him from his Tent City bunk as he was sleeping, kicking and hitting him.

One witness said an inmate used a piece of steel rebar, which was used to secure the tents to the ground, to beat Flanders on the head, neck and shoulders.

A 2002 decision by the Arizona Court of Appeals in the Flanders case raised questions about the security of the complex, saying the flaps on the tents could be lifted up easily and that inmates freely roamed in and out of the tents.

The court also said fights among inmates were common and that inmates regularly got hold of banned items — cigarettes, lighters, fireworks, drugs, knives and food — that were sneaked into the complex by people who tossed them over the fences that surround Tent City.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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