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Open Invitation

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After living in Phoenix for so many years, it is impossible to escape the stories surrounding Tent City jail. When the opportunity to tour Tent City was extended as part of Gregory Sale’s project It’s not just black and white, I was excited about the chance to answer some of the questions I had and to see it with my own eyes.

On a Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of the Tent City, we introduced ourselves and stated reasons for joining the tour. The group comprised of artists, curators, teachers and professionals involved in social work and the legal system. Many had come to satisfy curiosity; others had a sense of urgency to get some direct experience.

When we entered, I expected metal detectors and armored officers, but there were none. Our group was led into a beige room, and the door shut behind us. The officers leading the tour spoke of the history of Tent City, its low operating costs, that the general length of stay is just over three weeks. They said Sheriff Joe wanted to make the jail experience so bad that lawbreakers will not want to return. The officers looked to be in their early twenties, young I thought. How had they come to choose a job such as this? How did older inmates perceive them?

They showed us a bulletin board crowded with confiscated items – tools made with duct tape, weapons made from socks and other objects made of fabric and trash. The most striking was a bar of soap with intricate skulls carved out of it; it was beautiful. And as my gaze fixed on it, one of the officers explained that the inmates were reprimanded for possessing these items and using County property to create them. I could understand why a weapon was against the rules, but sculptures? How was one supposed to spend their time, hour after hour after hour?

We then toured a visiting room with a series of booths complete with video screens and phones for visitors to view and talk to inmates. A woman and a small child sat at the first booth as our group crowded around to hear the officer’s description of this small space. This was the first moment the tour felt like voyeurism to me – a feeling that would only intensify as we continued.

Next an officer opened a door to reveal a day room that serves as a cafeteria and space for the inmates to get away from the elements, hang out or watch TV. We took turns looking in. Some took photographs. The room was full of long tables and was bustling with inmates. Increasingly aware of our presence, some began to move out of sight while others began to stare and shout things, though there was too much noise to make out anything they said. I wanted to look longer but felt like an intruder. Clearly there is no privacy in jail.

The officers brought out a sample lunch bag — two pieces of fruit (usually oranges or grapefruits), bread and one small side of peanut butter. Dinner, the second and final meal of the day was similar but also included a meat. The Sheriff had eliminated salt and pepper some time ago to cut costs.

We next entered a corridor where the officers began to show us sample clothing worn by the inmates. Suddenly, they asked us all to stand against the wall and stay there. They explained that new inmates were arriving. Without a moment to process what they had said, the new inmates began to walk through, two-shackled side by side in a line. The hallway was no bigger than 10 feet wide, with members of our tour on either side. My heart racing, I couldn’t bring myself to make eye contact. I could only image what they were feeling being brought to this place, and being swept by a group of tourists. I wanted to look, to see the emotions on their faces, but I focused on their wrists, on the shackles going by, one after another until they were gone. I didn’t look up because I was a little scared and uncomfortable witnessing this moment. The officers continued on explaining the uniforms as though nothing had happened. As the clothing was passed around and a standard issue black and white striped shirt printed with “Sheriff’s Inmate” came to me, I couldn’t help but wonder how many inmates had worn this single shirt? It was a moment of realization that in here, inmates, no matter how different from one another, shared everything.

Finally we were escorted through Tent City. The place I had come to see. It felt more like a war camp than a jail. The beds were in rows that seemed to go on infinitely covered by a military style canopy. The sun was leaking in towards the bottom bunks. The temperature was moderate on the day of our tour but during the summer, this yard must feel like an unrelenting sauna. Inmates were told to move on as we approached their tent. Had our presence driven them from the only place that was theirs – a bunk bed dressed in pink sheets? I wonder if they had only disdain for us or if they were also somehow pleased to have us there.

The tour ended with an opportunity to visit one of the towers. A large lift extending far above the jail fence so officers can view the entire facility. Two visitors and an officer went up at a time; waiting allowed the rest of us to talk about our experiences and ask more questions. When it was my turn, it was not the view that I found most interesting but the stables that lay just beyond the main grounds. The officer explained that it was a livestock rehabilitation center for abandoned and abused animals, a no-kill shelter, comprised mainly of horses. The officer explained that five inmates were allowed to tend the animals and that very few of these inmates ever returned to Tent City. If the system were designed to rehabilitate, here was a perfect platform for it. The results seemed hard to argue with. I guess the positive things don’t make it out to the media as quickly as the bad ones.

As I drove away, free from the confines of Tent City, I realized I had as many questions as when I had arrived; only now they were different. Even a few days after, questions and conflicts swarmed my mind. The criminal justice system is immensely complex, as are the professed reasons why we incarcerate who we do and why, how we define and justify punishment versus rehabilitation and what the limitations of that punishment are. If long-term community safety is the intended outcome of our penal system, then rehabilitation needs to be prioritized. Isn’t a low budget facility without those resources a contradiction? Is humiliation and deprivation really going to instill a sense of self worth, or does it just perpetuate the underlying issues? Who are the individuals being hired within the system and what is their experience? Was it right to have tours of jails and prisons? Had my choice to come been the right one? The questions I had arriving at Tent City were mostly about logistics. I left with a far more complex understanding of jail and questions about our criminal justice system as a whole. Ultimately, I feel that the public should be aware of what is happening in the criminal justice system and should know what resources and measures are being used. The treatment of inmates and prisoners should be transparent, and we were on the tour to see for ourselves.

Jes Gettler, Artist

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