Tent City: An outside jail in the desert

Another interesting tour although we traveled outside of Mesa for this one to 2939 W. Durango St. in Phoenix.

What is Tent City?

The Tents Jail was begun in 1993 when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was able to obtain some surplus military tents. These tents were set up in an area adjacent to one of the existing Maricopa County Jails in Phoenix. Sheriff Arpaio had previously decided that he would not release any inmates due to jail overcrowding, and housing sentenced inmates in the tents seemed a good solution. Funding for the project was minimal (less than $300,000 vs. $10 million for a new building), including the cost for cement necessary for base pads, secure fencing, and electric costs for heating, cooling and lights. (from MCSO website: https://www.mcso.org/JailInformation/TentCity.aspx)


Tent City Jail Amenities:

Two Sky Watch Towers for security.
Stun fences around the perimeter.
Facial recognition computer software for inmate identification.
K-9 units and patrol deputies for additional security.
Classification Unit conducts background checks on inmates before they are
housed in the tents so that dangerous or predatory individuals
are not placed there.

From the parking lot to the entrance of Tent City Jail.

Sheriff Arpaio has added a few improvements at the Tents Jail, including four Sky Watch Towers for security, stun fences around the perimeter, and facial recognition computer software for inmate identification. K-9 units and patrol deputies have been added for additional security. The Classification Unit conducts background checks on inmates before they are housed in the tents, so that dangerous or predatory individuals are not placed there. (from the MCSO website)

It’s hard to see in the photo but the “Vacancy” light is on.
from the slot
A view from the roof (not my photo – found online at Zimbio.com).
Inmates are brought into this area at the back where they strip down and put on prison uniforms. They are checked outside and inside for contraband.
Other than the striped prison uniform, everything else is dyed pink. Our detention officer/tour guide said a few years ago the prison system was buying 75,000 pairs of underwear a year because when inmates were released they would wear them home. The sheriff decided to have everything white dyed pink so it would be recognizable and the inmates would have to leave them behind so they could be reused, that also includes socks, towels and blankets.
Pink boxers at left.
All inmates housed here work jobs (eight hours every other day) and are housed in tents with others who have the same job.
A fan inside the tent area where the inmates sleep.
Some inmates in this tent were sleeping in the morning after working a graveyard shift.
A collection of contraband confiscated at the jail. A lot of things are smuggled in inside body cavities.
This is the area where they eat and can hang out during the day if it’s hot outside. They are free to move from outside to inside. They can read or watch TV, eat snacks they purchase from the commissary. Showers are also available during the day.

Are religious or educational services held in the jails? Drug treatment programs? Job training?
There are many religious and educational services available to qualified inmates. Religious services are multi-denominational, including Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish. All programs/services are voluntary, other than educational programs for remanded juveniles, which are required. Drug treatment and work programs are currently available only to sentenced inmates. The work program encompasses a variety of jobs, including food services, warehouse, general building maintenance, janitorial, landscaping, road surfacing, and others. “Qualified” inmates are those inmates who have acceptable disciplinary behavior. (from the MCSO website)

Inmates are allowed to use this Securus ConnectUs technology for 20-minute, outgoing video calls, which is like Skype. There is a fee per call, which pays for the service and the county retains a small percentage.
Our guard said this “video visitation” has cut down on contraband being brought in from visitors.
Inside the security area with cameras throughout the jail.

Q: What is the difference between a jail and a prison?

A: Jails are managed by the county sheriff, usually an elected law enforcement position. They house men and women (inmates) that are awaiting trial. Jails also house anyone sentenced or convicted to up to one year in custody. People that work in jails are referred to as detention officers.

Prisons, on the other hand, are managed and run by the state government under the direction of the elected governor. Prisons house the more serious CONVICTED offenders (prisoners) – those whose sentences are longer than one year. Employees of state prison systems are called correctional officers.


Inmates can receive medical care ($10 copay) or prescriptions ($5 copay).
A medical examining room.
Males and females are housed in separate areas of Tent City and have no contact. Here we were looking into the women’s dining area and day room.

Want to see Tent City for yourself?

Anyone can take a tour  by calling: (602) 876-5551. Adults only (ages 18 and over. Please provide full names and dates of birth when calling to schedule the tour)

  • Tours will be conducted by Tents jail staff
  • Group size: up to 5 adults, no tour buses
  • Time and date availability to be determined by Tents Jail Administration
  • Dress standards apply. (Business casual is appropriate.)
  • Other guidelines/requirements may be established by Tents Jail Administration.

For more on Tent City: https://www.mcso.org/JailInformation/TentCity.aspx

Members of Mesa Leadership class who attended this tour.



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