Tent City: When Repulsion Becomes Imperative for Discourse

By Ahmed Tholal, the Maldives

On February 9-15, 2016, thirteen Humphrey Fellows from the University of Minnesota traveled to Arizona to study immigration with Humphrey Fellows in journalism at Arizona State University. Fellows learned hands-on through site visits and meetings with leaders and academics dealing with issues on the border. This year for the first time, Fellows crossed the border into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to examine border issues from the Mexican side. The following is one of a series of reflections by Fellows who attended this cross-campus collaboration, generously funded by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Institute of International Education. 

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Inmates at Tent City Jail

The Humphrey Fellowship Program to me is often about contradictions. It is about contrasting professions, and people involved in these professions spending almost a year together to not just find commonality in their work, method and philosophical ethos but also to explore dissimilarities and challenge thought processes to find organic solutions through debate, constructive arguments, and academic engagement. That inherent trait of the Humphrey Program, to me, shows the most lasting promise of the Fellowship. The stimulation of cognition and strongly held beliefs, as well as the situations that challenge these ideals, creates better leaders who are capable of finding productivity through disagreement. And never has this aspect of the Fellowship been more apparent than during the visit to Tent City Jail in Arizona and its aftermath. However people may view the visit and the lessons learned from it, that the visit resulted in an invigorated discussion filled with nuances about human rights and law enforcement is most certainly undeniable.


The warmth of Arizona was a welcome change to most of the Fellows, who were ironically burnt out from the constant cold and snow of Minnesota. But I remained true to the Humphrey contrast by being an aficionado of the cold and the snow, and the warmth only served to remind me that I always felt more at ease under the gray comfort of the rain cloud. Little did I know that the Arizona heat wasn’t the only thing that was about to reach boiling point.

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Poster in Tent City Jail quoting Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Having reached Arizona by noon, there was an air of anticipation to see Tent City Jail and I for one was already eager to sniff out human rights violations and pose some important questions to the officials. By late afternoon we were standing outside the nondescript jail building that looked more like the facade of a high school than a jail. But the moment we went inside, the realization that the facade was deceptive became terribly apparent. The outer waiting area was nothing special, but the framed pictures and quotations by the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio were unnerving, to say the least. A large, overbearing sign showed US soldiers in Iraq and questioned the audacity of people to criticize Tent City Jail and the humaneness of inmates sleeping outside in tents when it was good enough for US soldiers in Iraq. Many of the Fellows were surprised at the brazen justification so boldly outlined from the outset. It was a combination of the paternalistic mindset coupled with a gung-ho infusion of overt patriotism to capture the hearts and minds of people to find legitimacy in the actions of Sheriff Joe and those at Tent City Jail.

And then came the guards. Attired more like a SWAT team (which was exactly what they were going for), four to five guards walked through the front door consecutively as Lieutenant Mossman welcomed the Fellows to Tent City Jail. We were given an initial introduction to the place and its history and a glimpse into what it meant for the leadership to be in charge of a jail. There was an air of sarcasm and a sense of stoic indignation at the allegations being leveled against the jail. As the guards stood a few feet away from the group, Lieutenant Mossman was quick to point out that contrary to what has been publicized, they had absolutely nothing to hide and that those at Tent City Jail preferred to be there as opposed to being inside.

Unbeknownst to us all, there were already ideas forming in Fellows’ heads that conformed to which profession we belonged to. Those would be the ideas that would collide and contentiously be faced off later on. But for the moment the explanations were interrupted by two officers joining the rest. They were accompanied by two ferocious canines that didn’t just indicate the seriousness with which they took their job, but also quite clearly confirmed my fears about the way they viewed inmates inside Tent City Jail. We weren’t going to war, but it so disturbingly seemed like we were.

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The intention of the tour was probably to show the justification for Tent City Jail. It was therefore only fair that they start the tour with a demonstration of the contraband brought in and made within the jail. These included dice made from bread, rosaries decorated more eloquently than would be appreciated by the Sheriff, playing cards, cigarettes, blunt objects and other decorative and creative crafts that probably were a result of boredom. Maybe to those who have a preset notion about those serving time, this would have been a tantalizing prologue to the main act, but to me and to many of the human rights colleagues, it seemed more like the precursor to a violent sideshow to intensify the shock of the performance. Before we even got to the actual jail area, it started feeling more and more like a trip to the zoo or a staged performance that we were touring. The knot in my stomach got tighter and the disgust at partaking in the tour increased. It would be some time before I realized that the outrage and aversion to the place would in fact serve a more intrinsic purpose.

The aim of the tour was to make our way through the general population of the jail and see the conditions (the fantastically humane situation, according to the officials). But somehow, being who we were, most of us just couldn’t bring ourselves to become spectators to a show about human rights violations and the degradation of human dignity. And so, following the lead of our director Kristi, we started engaging with the inmates through casual conversation and icebreakers. At the men’s section we met and talked with a cinematographer, an artist, and people who were victims of a society that was set to make them fail and return back to jail. Yes, it is also individual responsibility, but when the individual effort is never galvanized by incentives from the state, then there is an inherent problem. Just to highlight some of the important aspects of the visit, let me list down issues based on the identifiers:

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A regular meal at Tent City Jail


We talked to people about the food, to which they all unanimously showed signs of repulsion and disdain. The explanation about why they only serve vegetarian food in the jail was in itself evidence of the confrontational attitude of the officials. When the inmates sued the jail for the lack of nutritional food being served and won the case, the jail decided to retaliate by complying with the court order and giving them food based on calories and not on edibility.


And that brings us to the infamous ‘pink underwear’ being worn by the inmates at the jail. “White clothing looks dirty over time, and so we got them nice pink clothing,” said a jail official. The inmates showed us the pink underwear and when we asked them about their feelings on having to wear pink clothing, they were pretty straightforward about it. Somehow it seemed like the reason why Sheriff Joe wanted them to wear that specific color was not really working. As one of the inmates said, “I suppose they want us to be embarrassed we are wearing pink. But times have changed and we aren’t so scared of our sexuality or insecure about it. So for me, I often wear pink even when I am outside. So if this is an act to embarrass us, unfortunately we aren’t embarrassed nor ashamed, because we are more than happy to wear pink even as men.” There isn’t much of a ruckus about having to wear pink by the inmates, but it is the inherent need to degrade and humiliate the inmates that is of utter concern to me.


Chain GangThe phrase seems almost Hollywood inspired, but the reality is that despite the constant insistence on the fact that there isn’t anything inhumane or against the inherent rights of inmates going on within the jail, when a group of people are chained together by their feet and asked to work in harsh conditions, that does not seem very humane. The argument from the officials that the people who join the Chain Gang do that on their own volition does not seem to hold a lot of water when you realize that the alternative to joining the gang is to be in the hole. This brings another pertinent issue I noticed at the jail: the oxymoronic notion of compelled choice. From the outset the argument that the inmates voluntarily join the chain gang is quite accurate, but on the other hand they conveniently misspeak about the alternative to their choice.


“What are the arrangements for conjugal visits?” I asked. “Oh, we don’t do that sort of stuff around here,” came the reply. It was quite apparent that the lives of inmates inside Tent City Jail wasn’t dictated by a set procedure that conformed to international human rights standards. Rather the procedures that were laid down or rather carved in stone had one standard; that of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his understanding of criminality and how those who come to his jail need to be treated. There were no face to face visits by family members. The staff showed us with pride the brand new internet video phone system that allowed family members to find internet connection and be able to connect with their loved ones. Beautiful in theory and yet impractical as far as the workability is concerned when you realize that they involve a connection cost of about 7 dollars for a certain amount of time and more thereafter. And of course the money was always a pleasant addition to the jail. The logic behind the ingenious method was that now they don’t really have to wait to meet their loved ones because they can connect with them anytime via video call. Unfortunately the quality of the call as well as the virtual nature of them precludes any real person to person connection.


Like many other countries, US is also riding a gigantic wave of mass incarcerations that is preparing to break onto the shore of humanity, taking an unprecedented toll on human dignity and the real value of restorative justice. The current criminal justice system has become so punitive that many who serve time and have criminal records are simply unlucky to have belonged to a group that is over represented within the system. Numbers and demographics play a far greater role to land people in prison than actual crimes. It wasn’t any different at Tent City Jail. There were women who had spent three months in the jail for being unable to pay their traffic violation fine. But to the rest of the world they will be no different than anyone else in the jail. They will forever be labeled and brandished as an inmate which will then lock them out of the resources needed to survive. There were countless people on charges of drug and substance abuse who aren’t given the necessary treatment and medication to wean off drugs. Their situation lands them in jail and the jail then makes it impossible for them to have a second chance in life. The vicious cycle is so vividly seen at the Tent City Jail, where the Sheriff apparently wants to make things so horrific for people that they wouldn’t want to return. I do not think people return because the Tent City Jail is an accommodating place, but rather because the real reasons for their return are never addressed. But then that was where the discourse began and when things started to become more interesting. At least to me.


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Tent City Jail Staff & Fellows

By the end of the tour, I realized that I was conspicuously uneasy and frighteningly motivated to speak out. I knew that despite all the human rights violations we saw, the officials were more than hospitable to the group and I had to keep reminding myself I was a Humphrey Fellow and that there was a certain level of dignity I had to maintain by virtue of being one. But that was what confused me as well. As a Humphrey Fellow who is selected from amongst thousands and selected for a specific purpose, isn’t it my duty to speak out? Isn’t it imperative upon me to live unto the values and courage of Hubert H. Humphrey? Wasn’t it part of my loyalty to be consistently uneasy and unnerved by such brazen challenges? By the end of the tour I was stuck between a rock of not decimating the Humphrey name and a hard place of the silence seeming so un-Humphrey-like. Eventually when it was time to pose for a picture, I had made up my mind that, undignified or not, I was not going to pose and smile with a group that embodied everything I stood against. I couldn’t stand and pretend that the people next to me in the picture were not violating the basic human rights of the inmates every single day. I couldn’t pose for a picture with people who claim that inmates don’t even deserve healthcare, housing, clothing and proper food. And when it was time to say ‘cheese’ I opted to stay out as did a few of my colleagues. I had silently protested and there was bound to be a backlash.


When I said that the most important part of the Humphrey Fellowship is the contradictions and the juxtapositions, I meant it, and what happened after the visit proved that. Somehow, the law enforcement Fellows saw  Tent City Jail in an entirely different light. They saw a jail that was ‘comparatively better’ than the jails in their respective countries. And so came the two sides of the argument. While the law enforcement officials thought that the whole hoopla about Tent City Jail was unjustified when the inmates looked happy and were actually out in tents of their own free will, the human rights Fellows saw the choice to be a moot point when the alternative was simply unacceptable. While the law enforcement Fellows believed that the jails in their respective countries were much worse, the human rights Fellows thought that when you want to compare standards, you don’t do it with the places with the worst examples, but rather the minimum standards that need to be upheld everywhere. The disgust that was apparent to the human rights Fellows was somehow not that conspicuous to the law enforcement Fellows.

The first issue came about as a result of some of us refusing to be in the picture. Some saw that as a disrespectful act of blatant antagonism which was unacceptable. To them our actions were distasteful while the human rights situation in the jail wasn’t. But then it also forced us to think about where they were coming from: a system where an order was followed without a second thought. Where rank and hierarchy was God and where superiors weren’t questioned and subordinates never asked. They came from an automated operational system that had shaped their ideals. But what emerged more conspicuously was that despite that automated system and that singular way of following orders, they were here. They were pursuing the Humphrey Fellowship with human rights Fellows and that itself gave me hope. Yes, I was challenged for what I believe in. I was even challenged when I talked about some of the quotations of Sheriff Joe. My outrage at the comments of Sheriff Joe was often seen as a direct challenge to the ideals of law enforcement. There were heated arguments and raised voices. There were moments when they did not want to listen to my illogical human rights rationale. But even throughout the constant contradictions, the law enforcement Fellows and the human rights Fellows were talking. A dialogue was in motion and though sparks flew and disagreements did lose the original purpose, there was an air of positive discourse. We saw certain aspects that outraged some of the law enforcement officials. We saw some that amused them and we saw some that they didn’t really care about. But at the same time, we saw that it wasn’t too difficult to start from those points that stood out to them and then work our way to a common understanding. While some of them were still skeptical at the end, there was a clearer channel opened to talk and listen.


Sunrise over Nogales

And that is the most amazing part of this trip. All of the horrifying things listed in this report were opportunities for us as Humphrey Fellows to engage with one another and find common ground. It was an excellent exercise in patience, but at the same time it was also a conversation starter and a platform to bring up difficult conversations. The Tent City Jail visit was a difficult one, during and after. But it was also a stimulating occasion to incessantly do away with the frivolous bits and pieces that honed in on the contentious and focus on the real aspects of human rights, security and law enforcement that will facilitate a more balanced approach. If fear will determine one’s rationality towards the criminal justice system, then justice and human rights will have no place. But if the heavy set doors that are shut tight by that fear can be held slightly ajar to let some light in, there is always hope that human dignity and worth will eventually determine how we approach the criminal justice system. The Cross Campus Collaboration is that power to hold those doors slightly ajar. Yes there was disgust, a necessary disgust, but then it was that disgust that led to the discourse and both are equally necessary for positive change.


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