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…

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