Inside America's toughest jail

Grim ... Tent City in Arizona puts Britain's soft jails to shame

in Arizona

The Sun
April 28, 2007


HIGH above the Arizona desert, a pink neon sign flashes the word “vacancy” from a watch tower manned by armed guards.

Surrounded by 25ft barbed wire fences, this is the welcome offered by America’s toughest jail — Tent City in Phoenix.

Inside, nearly 1,000 prisoners live in army surplus tents, baking in temperatures of 122°F (50°C) in summer and freezing during winter.

No matter how many criminals are locked up here, the vacancy sign is never turned off.

Instead, if prisoner numbers increase, jail supremo Sheriff Joe Arpaio simply orders extra tents. He says: “I will build tents to house 100,000 people before I ever let anybody out of jail early. If I have to, I will put up tents from here to Mexico.”

Tough ... Sheriff Arpaio and the warnings that
show criminals they can expect no mercy

The contrast to Britain’s creaking and overflowing jail system, run by Home Office pen-pushers who insist that it takes years to create new jail places, could not be sharper.

Home Secretary John Reid blew £23million temporarily housing prisoners in police cells after jails overflowed last October.

Yet Tent City — part of Estrella Jail on the outskirts of the city of Phoenix — took just six months to build next to a stinking rubbish tip.

The total cost to Arizona taxpayers was just £55,000 — compared to the typical £20million price tag for a modern British jail.

Pampered inmates?: HMP Wormwood Scrubs, London

Lags face working on a chain gang as punishment if they are caught enjoying any of the luxuries pampered British cons take for granted — such as coffee, cigarettes and porn. There is no heating or air conditioning in the tents and inmates live on a vile diet of rotting food past its sell-by date donated for free to save taxpayers’ money.

Last Christmas Day just 2p (4 cents) per person was spent on lunch — less than the cost of rations for the guard dogs which patrol the compound with shotgun-toting guards.

This brutal regime is the brainchild of Arpaio, credited with being America’s toughest lawman. The 76-year-old elected sheriff has built his career by delivering on his pledge to voters to get tough on crime.

He says: “Today, I report directly to 3.8million people who vote for a sheriff.

Pride ... members of sheriff's posse
wear T-shirts in praise of their chief (the T-shirts also include the Union Flag)

“I don’t have to report to anybody else like a bureaucrat to a boss.

“If I want something done — like building Tent City — I can do it quick.

“When I want to put prisoners on a chain gang, it takes me 24 hours to do it.

“No appointed bureaucrat would ever set up a chain gang. They wouldn’t have the guts to take these sort of decisions.”

Arpaio’s popularity is underlined by a 3,000-strong “posse” of public volunteers who help to police his patch — and proudly wear “Toughest Sheriff in America” T-shirts.

Last year, the no-nonsense sheriff was left appalled by a tour of London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison during a trip to Britain.

He recalls: “It was like a hotel compared to my jails. You couldn’t see because there was so much cigarette smoke. There was a TV in each cell. They had their freedom, good food.”

That experience has prompted Arpaio to argue that Britain MUST rebalance its system of law and order in favour of victims.

Prisoner's attire ... Sun man Harry kitted in
striped suit ready for chain gang work

Later this week, telly viewers will witness the impact on ten British bad lads who had a stint inside Arpaio’s Tent City.

The unique social experiment is being captured on film for a new series on Bravo TV — offering a glimpse into how Arpaio’s tough regime could work in the UK. Arpaio explains:

“It was risky to allow these British lads into my jail but I did it to help England. Two of them went home during the filming. That was pathetic.

“But a lot of the inmates learned from the experience. I have even received a letter from one of the Brits saying he would now like to come out to Phoenix to work here as a prison officer.”

Among the Brits was maintenance worker Dan Cadwell, 27, who went off the rails following years of heavy boozing.

He says: “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. But by the end I felt good. It was like a detox — off the drink and off the dope.

“My experience in Tent City was a wake-up call. It made me realise how easy crime is in Britain.

“We should try some of the ideas I saw in Arizona in our jail system. My stay there really made me think. This could have a big impact on my mates who are always in and out of jail.” To reinforce his powerful message, Arpaio invited The Sun to serve time in Tent City.

The experience laid bare a regime devoid of the cocky bravado exhibited by British crooks who style themselves as amateur experts in exploiting human rights law.

Before being driven to the jail, I endured a 40-minute ordeal of cavity searches, fingerprinting, DNA sampling and answering questions in detail. Then I was issued with a striped uniform.

A few hours later I was lying on a bunk in a tent. Close by, hordes of tattooed inmates hurled abuse at me in a grim welcome they give to new prisoners.

A SWAT squad carried out an inch-by-inch search of my sleeping area and began by ripping apart my bunk.

Meanwhile, a guard wearing rubber gloves spreadeagled me against a fence while doing a body search for drugs.

Chain gang ... Sun man Harry at
work with the prisoners

At 5.30am I was woken and told I’d be in a chain gang, shackled with leg irons to three other prisoners. It’s a painful experience. A jail bus then took us to the remote White Tanks Cemetery where our task was to lower corpses — mainly of tramps and drug addicts — into graves.

All the Maricopa County prisoners I spoke to said they hated the regime — and every one seemed determined never to pick up a return ticket.

Sheriff Arpaio is convinced his methods offer society a powerful deterrent — and he backed The Sun’s front page attack on “brainless” John Reid earlier this year.

He says: “Who knows how many crimes I have prevented because people are frightened of spending time in my jails?”

And he adds: “Britain is a great country. But why can’t the Home Secretary just build more jails. Why doesn’t he get tents like me?

“It only takes 60 days to build a prefabricated prison — and how can you put a price on public safety?”

h.macadam@the-sun.co.uk (external - login to view)

Brits Behind Bars: America’s Toughest Jail is on the Bravo TV channel on Thursdays at 10pm.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Apr 28th, 2007 at 06:29 AM..