This morning our class piled up in the van and drove to Maricopa County Tent City Jail, envisioned by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
As we pulled into the property, we unintentionally went to the entrance for Arpaio’s S.M.A.R.T. Tents, which is a program he designed to deter adolescents from going to jail (I came under the impression that it is a likely choice for individuals to be sentenced to jail, which is confusing, because I am also under the general impression that humans want to be ‘good’ citizens). S.M.A.R.T. stands for Shocking Mainstream Adolescents into Resisting Temptation, and it involves taking groups of seventh and eighth graders to Tent City Jail, where they are detained and treated as inmates for 24 hours; “They are greeted by detention officers and from the start are treated just like inmates…they sleep like real inmates do with one blanket and no pillow,” and “they hear from Sheriff Arpaio, who tells them how tough life in his jails can be.” (Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, 2014)
Fortunately or unfortunately, S.M.A.R.T. Tents is not what our class came to see. We came to tour Tent City Jail (we were later informed that touring Tent City Jail is a renowned form of entertainment/vacationing). Inside the building, it was white, clammy, and cold; and there were ‘encouraging’ quotes around the facilities, like “The next time you want to complain about Tent City, STOP! Instead, think about how hard life is for our troops in Iraq.”
According to the facility’s dress code, women’s sexuality is dangerous—or at least this is what our class interpreted from it, which prohibits no showing of breasts or cleavage, shoulders, or knees. There were other rules listed, but the majority of them applied to the female needing to conceal herself. The females in our group were also told to “hang on to [our] jewelry,” and stay away from the men, as they liked to impress us by hollering and performing like they were on display at a zoo. It was also greatly impossible to not be aware of Arpaio’s reign: his name is everywhere—on the buildings, employees, inmates, etcetera. I thought the county owned this jail, not Arpaio.
The walls were white. My hands were clammy. Fox News spoke their stories. And it was cold—just like others who had experienced being in jails and detention centers said it was. It rang in my ears and skin.
We didn’t see anyone for the first few minutes, but then Lieutenant Jannis Mossman greeted and ushered us into the conference room. There were three stout heavily armored men standing guard towards the back. Ironically, I felt a further chill of discomfort at the sight, rather than reassurance of my safety. One of the officers was holding a shot gun, and another introduced himself as Sargent Charles Sawyer, of the Special Response Team. As threatened as I felt by the weaponry, the men were kind and genuine towards us, and/but they made it clear we were to be protected from the inmates. Mr. Sawyer and Lt. Mossman introduced the facility to our class. Lt. Mossman (2014) prefaced the visit when she said…what we may have all been thinking: “When you’re not used to it, it’s kind of an uncomfortable feeling.” That was when I couldn’t help but think about how this system is not inevitable, and how we allow ourselves to get over the discomfort of it by numbing ourselves, and justifying our power and freedom over those in the striped uniforms in any way we can imagine.
Tent City Jail opened in 1993 as Sheriff Arpaio’s response to the lack of full sentences served by criminals; at that time, many individuals served only 60 to 80% of their sentences before being released—possibly due to overcrowding, but it also may be important to note that most of the inmates here are from DUIs and failure to pay child support. Arpaio felt it wasn’t fair to the taxpayers that people be released early, and he held the taxpayers in mind again when he realized the county could save money by using surplus military tents for outdoor holding, instead of constructing an entire new building. Lt. Mossman (2014) reiterated Arpaio’s thoughts and perspective further: “If it’s good enough for our fighting men and women, then it’s good enough for convicted criminals.”
There are three divisions within Tent City: one is “for those needed elsewhere after [Tent City is] done with them” (Lt. Mossman, 2014)—although, I’m still not entirely sure what was meant by this, but perhaps she was referring to those who had yet to be sentenced and are awaiting trial; another is split between male and female working yards; and the last for those who have work release or work furlough.
The working yards are a product of the jail’s voluntary working program: individuals may choose to be on ‘lockdown’ (which we did not get a visual representation of) or out working, where they engage in onsite chores. However, the individuals have this choice as long as their behavior dictates it (which in itself implies that we humans have perfected behavioral control). If an inmate is brought into lockdown, they may request to come back out onto the yard, but they must do a thirty day work period with a chain gang first. A chain gang is a group of individuals that do some kind of public work, like picking up trash from the sides of highways. The group is chained and shackled together in a line at their ankles until they reach their work place.
Work release refers to the ability of an individual to leave jail premises for work, and work furlough is similar, except with the extra stipulation that the individual must have permission and supervision from a probation officer. Upon returning, each person is stripped searched for contraband (illegal products or items).
“Inmate labor around here saves the county lots of money” Lt. Mossman (2014) informed us. Last year, the county saved approximately $24,000 in fruit gleaning alone, thanks to “free labor.” I have to ask, though, do the taxpayers also know that instead of their tax money going jail expansion, it could go to better public transportation?
Our tour officially began with the visitation center… The ‘Skyping’ visitation center. Inmates are not allowed to have face-to-face visits, so they visit by way of webcam instead. The screen that either side gets to see each other through is no larger than 6X6 inches. Lt. Mossman informed us that holding visits this way avoids contraband. We were given the example of a parent bringing their baby to visit the other incarcerated parent: the baby could have drugs stored in their diaper that the incarcerated person could then access once the baby was held. I don’t believe that that would never happen, but I also felt a kink in my heart at the thought of not being able to hold someone I loved just because the state saw me as guilty until proven innocent. Soon, these webcam visits can be held online, as the jail is incorporating a new system; however, the calls will be made at the expense of the visitors/inmates.
We were then introduced to the shrine of potential contraband. There were drugs, hand made tattoo guns, rosaries, gambling dice, knives, shanks, and other weapons. I did not understand the placement of the rosaries at first, because they’re a religious symbol, nothing menacing. I was proven wrong, though: the rosaries (and dream catchers) were made from blankets and wires—county property. Damaging county property is a crime. The gambling dice, among other things, were made from toilet paper, thus “toilet paper is a controlled substance around [t]here.” (Lt. Mossman) Another element to contraband is the underwear that men would take upon release (who wouldn’t want a clean pair of underwear?); Arpaio decided to dye all of the men’s underwear, sheets, and towels pink as a way to mark county property. Lt. Mossman implied the humiliation behind the color when she made a comment about how men wouldn’t normally choose to wear pink.
Skipping a couple of steps in our tour, just for a moment here, we saw that men and women, insofar as they were inmates, rarely, if ever, came into contact with each other. Their yards were at least sixty feet apart. As I noticed this, I asked about the recognition and treatment of transgender persons, and I was given a seemingly reverent answer: if the individual is mid-transition, they are isolated until their transition is completed, then they are allowed to join their respective gendered yard … but wait. Isolated?
At first I thought, that might be comforting, since trans people have been othered by White Supremacy, and are likely to experience prejudices and abuse in jail/prison systems. I realized though, that isolation could be just as damaging as the anxiety of whether or not your fellow inmates would attack you.
We heard from later groups that transgender people do face humiliation, abuse, and rape amongst their mates—and suicide. What does isolation in Tent City Jail entail, exactly? What kind of effects does/might that have on the individual, and are they treated respectfully by their fellow inmates and officers? Not to mention that this dynamic still enforces a gender binary, and that an individual who does not identify as such is forced either defend themselves or sit alone; it’s not that everyone else needs to be aware and respectful of humanity and LGBTQ.
Jumping back to the contraband shrine, while we were not given the date, at some time inmates sued the jail for its noxious food. This resulted in the jail providing a soy-based vegetarian diet to all inmates, unless excused for religious or allergen reasons. Upon Google searching Arpaio’s Tent City Jail, you may notice a photo of him championing his ‘McDonald’s sign,’ which boasts about the number of meals served to inmates: as of 2012, it was over 430,000. Turning humans into numbers is an art this jail has perfected.
The inmates are also offered a suite of life services: there are services available for Christians and Muslims, and everyone has access to a GED, as well as the Alpha Academy, which is a life skills program. There are also recreational activities, including the bicycle program (for women only), which powers the televisions as you pedal.
We continued our tour with a walkthrough of the men and women’s working yards. Each tent holds either 22 persons or 44, and the jail has a total carrying capacity of 2,126 (it is currently housing around 850 individuals). The tents include bunk beds, a fan, skylights, and walls that can be rolled up during the summer heat. We saw several inmates in their bunks. I wondered how long they had been there. Did they get to go inside today? Into the cold air? I felt my body start to complain after being outside for just a few minutes; I would have been happy to go back into that coldness. What is it like to be outside in that heat for almost a year?
I couldn’t remember if we were allowed to look at the inmates or not, so I didn’t. I felt like such a… I don’t even have the words. I just curled in on myself and felt their eyes. Their anger, curiosity, longing, confusion. When I noticed one of them deliberately looking at the females in our class, I didn’t feel the same rage I do when men holler and double-check me out on the streets. Here, I’m holding the power. I’m the one who can leave this damnation. They can’t. I want to say the feeling I held was shame; I wanted to tell them I was sorry, as if I were responsible for them being there. In a way, I still feel that.
The tour went on with the Estrella Jail, which is attached to the Tent City Jail. It is an all (un-sentenced) women’s facility, and it has a protective tower for those in mental and physical need. Here, the difference in power couldn’t have been made more clear: before our class walked through the main hallway, all of the inmates had to form a line and face the wall. They couldn’t look at us, and our guides made sure that we stayed clear of the inmates’ immediate space, as if we might get infected.
We ended in front of the conference room, where Lt. Mossman gave us a little bit of insight on what it’s like working for the Tent City Jail: “We call it baby-sitting with an edge,” and “if you can handle being around kids, you can handle being around inmates.” Not only does that statement insult the inmates, but children too—all of humanity, I might say. The two job requirements we were told about: GED/high school diploma and 18 years in age. It doesn’t take much to work here, and, as Lt. Mossman herself said, “It doesn’t take much to get [convicted] here.” Maybe it doesn’t take much to work here, because the White Supremacist doesn’t want critical thinkers or challengers; they want pacified followers.
Our class later reassembled at the Phoenix Public Library for a debrief and discussion of our visit. Some themes we focused on were the presence of paternalism, dehumanization, militarization, and gender roles. The paternalism that the guards and lieutenant held over the inmates (and us) was astounding—not to mention the paternalism that Sheriff Arpaio held over everyone, and he wasn’t even there! The guards and lieutenant lamented at how childish and deviant the inmates are. They held the authority that only they, the county employees, knew what was good for the incarcerated people.
The relationship between gender roles was mentioned briefly earlier with the pink underwear: in our white heteropatriarchal society, men do not wear pink, so to make them do so was emasculating—and homophobic. The female gender role was exemplified too. We were told about the female inmates’ aggressiveness, and by the face the guard made, while he shook his head at the same time, this was less than acceptable. Women’s role in white heteropatriarchal society is to be gentle, silent, pretty, and passive; anything else threatens the dominant’s power, and the woman is held in contempt.
Then there is the (further) dehumanization… While we were looking at the shrine of contraband, Lt. Mossman told us about their equine program. Sick or injured horses are brought to the jail for inmates to assist the horses into health. The lieutenant then said, “It’s really sad” how they get treated. In the two minutes (of our hour long tour) that we spent discussing the horses, Lt. Mossman expressed more remorse for the horses than she did for the inmates at any given time. For me, the dehumanization placed upon the inmates made it easy for me to dehumanize the guards and lieutenant. I had to check myself then, because each person is human. The lieutenant also has a son that works with her in the facility; she said she wouldn’t let him work there if she didn’t think it was good for him.
It was important for us to be reminded that this jail is structured under the white supremacist system, which maintains power for a limited number of (white) people at any cost. It requires that the majority of our population be kept ‘poor’ or limited by a budget, and they get little to no access to resources (clean air and water, healthy food) and services (doctors, lawyers, therapists, college). It is not Lt. Mossman’s, nor any of the other employees, ‘fault’ that she works in a system where people are dehumanized, disrespected, and oppressed. She, and we, are all forced to live in the culture that we are born into, which creates and limits our very perceptions and beliefs of the world. Our tour of the Tent City Jail is an example of the white supremacist system, not how non-compassionate and abrasive people can be.
Our class then went to JoBot Coffee, which is just off of Roosevelt St. (the arts district). Our graduate teaching assistant, Laura, gave us a lesson in Neoliberalism and capitalism. This is a difficult subject to study and understand, but Laura simplified it for us seamlessly: “Neoliberalism is an economic theory that informs capitalism, which is an economic practice where trade and industry are owned privately and for profit.” Here are some key facets to Neoliberalism:
It puts monetary capitalism above all else, and its number one (two and three) priority is accruing as much of it as possible. This is made more clear when we recognize that there has always been a small population in the United States who has held the majority of wealth, and so it is those few who have access to succeed in accruing more.
Individualism and individual responsibility: it is upon one’s self to create their own wealth, and if they are unsuccessful, then it is due to laziness or some personal fault.
Deregulation/Lack of government interference: the government gives too much funding to social and public services, which should be paid for directly by individuals; this lead to massive tax cuts for the rich, who are also lobbyists for particular political leaders. This, along with individual responsibility feed into privatization; as the government loses funding from tax cuts, companies must swoop in and buy them out (i.e. water, oil, parks, education, etcetera.)
It is framed as being inevitable: we cannot live under any other kind of economic theory (or practice).
It needs to remove legal barriers to trade (i.e. the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is an agreement between Canada, United States, and Mexico for the free flow of production and marketing of commodities). This includes the myth that if you let the market go ‘free,’ it will eventually balance itself out, and everyone will be economically fit.
It needs globalization: capital (monetary, labor, resources, land) are not infinite, so for capitalism to keep going, we must expand geographically to acquire more.
To get a window of understanding (this is difficult, convoluted stuff) the effects capitalism under Neoliberalism has had on the United States, and the world around, one can check out these resources: Neoliberalism: A Brief History, by David Harvey (2005); Global Wealth Inequality (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWSxzjyMNpU); Immigration Flood Unleashed by NAFTA’s Disastrous Impact on Mexican Economy (http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0425-30.htm); and Crises of Capitalism (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0).
Now into the evening, our class went to the Phoenix Center for the Arts to visit with Danny Scooby Morales, co-founder of Cyphers—a grassroots organization rooted in liberation and empowerment through hip hop culture and the urban arts. It is open to individuals of all ages (although it seems to be focused on youth), and champions positive community relationships. This is evident in the name itself, which can be defined as the energy created within a group of people. Cyphers are always present amongst a group, and Cyphers bring cyphers into awareness; they are created with the intention of afore mentioned characteristics (liberation, empowerment), and compassion. Urban arts and hip hop culture are the avenues it walks through, and one dancer said it saved his life. Morales tutored us on the four elements of hip hop:
Street dance (e.g. social dance, street jazz choreography, krump, break*)
Street art (i.e. graffiti, which is a style, not a medium, of art, and it “dates back to the cave man days (Morales 2014))
D.J. (also described as “the art of turntablism,” and it speaks about the community; the D.J. is a performer and artist, not someone who “makes a playlist)
Rap, or “rhythm and poetry” (Morales described to us that true rap and hip hop is not how it has been represented in mainstream culture and media—they’ve given rap a bad rap.)
*Here, I would just like to honor Morales and the hip hop community by sharing some critical knowledge Morales stressed onto us: breaking is the true term for what many people refer to as break dancing; Morales says he and fellows are often insulted by the term break dancing, because it was a term imposed onto hip hop by the media. The dance came to be called breaking, because every song has “that funky part” that gets looped over, and those are the breaks to dance to.
We were then given the four principles of hip hop: peace, love, unity, and fun. All words that instill liberation, empowerment, and compassion in myself. Cyphers offers classes and events in all of the elements, and we were allowed to stay for the dance class. There were six dancers, ranging approximately between the ages of six to eighteen. They were so happy and so willing to be present and supportive of each other. I thought to myself, what are people doing who aren’t here? What would White Supremacy say to this?
I thoroughly appreciate that there are programs like this for individuals to get involved with—that there are spaces available for individuals to become a community. However, Cyphers has been devalued by some: the organization used to have a lease with a large building just for them, but when the lease expired, the owner sold out to an investor who wanted to build a strip mall in the space. Morales doesn’t let it get him down though. He seems to be at his best even still, and is more than happy to work at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, especially with all the groups that are active there: Phoenix Children’s Chorus, Roosevelt Row, and Radio Phoenix, just to name a few.
Rounding out the night, a few of us stayed at the Center for a reading of a banned play—or what would have been a banned play, since that is the program, but a different play was performed in response to “what happened in Ferguson.” I’ve quoted Mary Stephens, a coordinator of Arizona State University’s Banned Plays and an ASU professor, who exclaimed it is that kind of language which allows us to be separated from the event, thus the entirety of the systematics and history behind it. The language also makes the event seem isolated and random in itself, even though events like “what happened in Ferguson” happen every day.
The play was Force Continuum by Kia Corthron (2002). It is the story of a multigenerational family of African-American cops who face scrutiny and emotional turmoil from fellow police officers and general community members (both black and white). It so beautifully expresses the humanity in each character portrayed, and their throws within White Supremacist society. The purpose of the Banned Plays program is not just for entertainment or as a political statement, but also to hold space for community dialogue, which ensued after the reading. The dialogue consisted of “blackness and whiteness as a status,” and the brutality that not only individuals face from police, but also the brutality police face within themselves and the community. There were questions about how to bring the youth into discussions like these, and how we can continue to develop as a community—the police officers included.
That night, I forgot about how white and cold the morning was, and walked into the dark, welcoming heat of Phoenix.