I sat in one of the many mandatory classes I had to take after my DUI while the cute, skinny, blonde girl in her early 20s described her experience at Tent City. She talked about the ridiculous heat, the guys making sexual comments to her through the fence while she got water, and just generally feeling like she was sub-human. She cried. She shook. The instructor leading the group was unafraid to tell her she was dealing with PTSD and what happened to her was not right.
The instructor’s comments were a surprise to me. I knew she was getting paid by either the county or the state government to lead the sessions. Hearing her speak out against Tent City was not something I expected. I guess she was ultimately a professional helper so she felt the need to speak honestly.
I was fortunate enough not to experience PTSD from Tent City, but I completely understood how that girl could have been traumatized. It was always an experience designed to dehumanize us. I guess it kind of worked for me because I still feel like scum for having ever gotten a DUI.
My DUI sentence required me to serve two days at Phoenix’s Tent City jail. Tent City had become famous because the always publicity-hungry Sheriff Joe Arpaio wanted to seem powerful in the media. To do this, he set up military grade tents in the desert, provided inmates with little coverage from the cold and even less from the heat. He was famous for his belief that if the conditions were good enough for military serving in Iraq or Afganistan it was too good for Arizona lawbreakers. I hope getting water in military camps isn’t as difficult as they made it on us.
They did not tell you when you were supposed to go to Tent City. I knew I was turning myself in on Saturday morning because I wanted to serve out my 2 days in time to get to work on Monday. My brother dropped me off at the jail at 6:00 AM because I wanted to make sure I was out in time for my 9:00 AM shift on Monday morning.
I sat outside in a gathering area and waited. An hour passed and then another. I had a book with me but I couldn’t relax enough to read it. We were allowed two towels (to serve as pillows), one book, and any clothes we had on when we were booked. I intentionally wore too many layers of clothes in case it got too cold at night or I just needed extra pillow materials. This meant I was wearing a long sleeve mock turtleneck under a normal t-shirt as the temps starting creeping into the 90s.
I finally got let into the jail around 9:00 AM. By then it was already starting to approach 100 degrees. This wouldn’t have been so terrible, aside from the guards requiring us to stand in the sun (even though there were shaded areas available) while we were processed into Tent City. This seemed intentional because they placed us along the non-shaded north wall of the entry rather than the semi-shaded south wall.
Once we were processed in, it was off to the first holding cell. I had been warned that it might be really cold in the cells. Obviously, that was a cold weather thing because it was at least 85 degrees in there. I sat in a room no bigger than the current kitchen and living room of my one-bedroom apartment with at least 30 other inmates. Some 18-year-old punk was trying to sound cool talking about black tar heroin. He managed to captivate all the people who were looking for entertainment. Most of us didn’t give a shit about his stories. We just wanted to know what was next.
The next step was mugshots. Which we all knew would go up on the MCSO website. Purely for the sake of this post, I wish I could have tracked down my mugshot but it looks like the new Sheriff is a little more respectful. The new MSCO site doesn’t have a mugshot search feature.
After mugshots, it was back to another holding cell. This would be the one where I would come closest to completely losing my shit. There were still between 30–40 people in this ludicrously small space. There were concrete benches wrapping around the cell and another set in the middle. All told, there was seating for about 20 people, leaving the rest of us to lay on the floor.
I ended up finding the only place to stretch out with my head next to the toilet. No joke, I had to turn my head the opposite direction behind the bowl while some guy pissed and I just prayed there wouldn’t be any misses. I laid there for hours before the crowd thinned out enough to get on the bench.
I didn’t have a watch, but I’d estimate I made it to a sitting spot on the bench around 11:00 PM. So I had gotten to Tent City 17 hours earlier and been moved into the facility 14 hours earlier. I still had yet to get into the “tent” part of Tent City. As I sat in an actual cell for around 16 hours, I distinctly remember thinking “If I take my shoe off right now and just start beating the hell out of the kid asleep on the floor in front of me, I could have my own cell”. That is one fucked up, sleep-deprived, jail created thought!
I was finally transported to the tents at 8:00 AM, Sunday morning. I had arrived at Tent City 26 hours earlier and spent 23 hours in holding cells. At that point getting to my own bed was amazing! Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed in my bunk was the bed next to me housing a pigeon’s nest. The corrections officers would come over to check it out after the person assigned to the bed complained. They reassigned him but did nothing about the pigeon’s nest.
Up to this point, I think everything sucked but seemed somewhat tolerable/legal. Then came the water situation. It was 111 degrees the day I was given my bunk at Tent City. You were not given water and there was an intensely enforced rule about not drinking straight from the water fountains. If you did not have a bottle you would be kicked out of the water fountain line. They wouldn’t even allow us to trap water in our hands to sip. The only way to get a bottle was to get one from another inmate or get a bottled drink from the commissary and refill it.
Standing in line for the commissary might not sound so bad under normal circumstances. However, we had “bunk checks”. For me, this meant that two times I almost made it into the commissary after standing in the 111-degree sun for a half hour, only to have a bunk check called when I was a few people away. There was no holding spots during bunk check so I just had to keep starting over.
Eventually, I did get an RC Cola out of the commissary and managed to refill the bottle and finish it at least 4 times before the next bunk check. Immediately afterward I took up residence in my bunk. I attempted to sleep next to the pigeon’s nest for hours until the sun finally started to go down. At that point, I finally left my bunk to start walking laps around the perimeter of the jail. This was a form of rebellion. It was my way of saying “Screw this system. I’m going to exercise while I’m here.”
After a few laps, I tried to settle in to eat dinner. I ended up eating the peanut butter and drinking the juice box. Everything else was moldy or expired. I walked more laps until a bunk check came after sundown. It was getting late, so I knew they would be calling my number for release any minute.
Group after group was called for release, but my number just kept not coming up. The other inmates told me the last release was 2 AM. My name was not called with that group. I was fucking terrified! I was one of many people who tried to talk to the detention officers, telling them my number should have been called. I repeated my story over and over again. I was only supposed to have 2 days and I had served my time. I had to be out in time to get to work the next day or I could lose my job. I hadn’t notified my supervisors I was going to be in jail that weekend.
Finally, at 3 AM my number was called. I was told by others that this was not common, so clearly there had to have been a mistake that must have gotten sorted out. This is something that still terrifies me. They could have easily said I wasn’t supposed to get out yet or my name could have just gotten lost in the system and I would have had no recourse. Once my ass was in the possession of Sheriff Joe’s office, there was nothing I could have done from inside Tent City to get out.
There was one final stop back near the holding cells. This was the out-processing phase. I don’t really remember much of what was done to process us out of the jail. My only memory from that part was trying to decide if I was going to keep the prisoner’s wristband as a memento. For a little bit, I thought maybe it would be a good motivator to remind me of my past mistakes and their consequences. I could put it on my bookshelf next to my running medals. Finally, I decided it was probably not a good idea to keep a reminder of my lowest point in life around and tossed it in the trash as I walked out. I summed things up with a cryptic Facebook post that maybe 3 or 4 people in my life actually understood at the time: