By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - A controversial outdoor tent jail in Arizona that became one of the signature tough-on-crime projects of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio will be shut down, his replacement for the job said on Tuesday.
The canvas compound known as “Tent City” in southwest Phoenix, long branded inhumane by civil rights groups, was no longer needed to handle the inmate population, new Maricopa Sheriff Paul Penzone said.
“This facility is not a crime deterrent, it is not cost efficient and it is not tough on criminals,” said Penzone, who took office in January after beating Arpaio in last year's election. He projected $4.5 million savings from closing Tent City.
Penzone said the jail had become a circus that inmates preferred, rather than a prudent law enforcement tool to house law-breakers.
“Starting today that circus ends and these tents come down,” he told reporters at a news conference, adding that inmate transfers would begin in 45 to 60 days. “We’re going to give these criminals what they don’t want.”
The decision comes after Penzone appointed a committee in January to determine the fate of the outdoor facility, which opened in August 1993 with surplus military tents.
Billed as a cost-saver, the more than 2,000-bed facility was intended to help relieve an over-crowded jail system and quickly became one of Arpaio’s most high-profile acts during his six terms in office.
A string of politicians and visitors from across the world have toured the sun-scorched facility erected adjacent to a brick-and-mortar jail.
Arpaio, who became known for his anti-illegal immigration stance and jail practices such as making inmates wear pink underwear and eat green bologna, vowed the jail would never close under his watch.
Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, called the closure a “good step forward” but that still more work was needed.
“Maricopa County’s jails are plagued by the mistreatment of pre-trial detainees and remain under federal court oversight because of the ongoing abuse of people with mental health problems,” said Soler, in a statement. The dollars saved by the closure should be used for programs and services that address these and other problems, she added.
Arpaio, 84, was ousted in November after serving 24 years as sheriff. He faces a criminal contempt trial on April 25 for violating the orders of a federal judge in a racial profiling case.
Arpaio declined to comment for this story.
(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Andrew Hay)