Outdoor jail, a vestige of Joe Arpaio’s tenure, is closing

The outdoor jail in Maricopa County, Ariz., seen in 2010, opened in 1993 and will be closing in the coming weeks.

PHOENIX — Tent City, the outdoor jail that stood as the last remaining symbol of Joe Arpaio’s long, turbulent tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County, will close in the coming weeks, Mr. Arpaio’s successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone, said on Tuesday.

“Starting today, the circus ends, and the tents come down,” Sheriff Penzone said.

The jail, where inmates wore striped jumpsuits and pink underwear and slept in 70 surplus Korean War tents, became an effective and telegenic publicity tool for Mr. Arpaio. His unforgiving tough-on-crime stance and his pursuit of illegal immigrants propelled him to re-election five times, but also thrust him into lawsuits and controversy.

The facility opened in 1993 under the pretense that it would save money while turning the desert’s broiling summer into an element of punishment. In the end, it did neither, Sheriff Penzone said. Tent City never held more than 1,700 prisoners, and in recent years, it housed no more than 800. But the cost of operating the jail did not change significantly as its population declined; the same number of guards were needed to patrol its seven-acre campus.

Inmates said they liked being outdoors, despite the heat, the meatless meals served twice a day, the pink underwear and the spectacle that they became under Mr. Arpaio, who rarely turned down a reporter’s request to visit the jail. Guards were the ones who suffered, Sheriff Penzone said, having to wear bulletproof vests and work long hours outside in the heat and the rain.

“There is no empirical evidence that shows that this facility in any way deters crime,” Sheriff Penzone said. The “misperception,” he said, “is no longer a story.”

A neon sign that Mr. Arpaio ordered installed high above the jail flashed “Vacancy,” at once a statement of fact and, during his tenure, a perverse taunt.

Mr. Arpaio’s name was not mentioned Tuesday, but it was clear that the closing was intended to topple another piece of his legacy. Mr. Penzone and Grant Woods, chairman of the committee assembled to study the jail’s effectiveness, repeatedly spoke of the false premise that sustained the county’s commitment to Tent City — it cost $8.5 million a year to operate — and the stain that it brought to the state’s image.

“The days of Arizona being a place where people are humiliated or abused or ridiculed for the self-aggrandizing of others are over,” said Mr. Woods, a former attorney general for Arizona. “We’re moving on.”

In an interview, Mr. Arpaio dismissed Sheriff Penzone’s criticism and said Tent City was “going to go down in history as one of the greatest incarceration programs in our country.”

President Trump “has been cracking down on illegal immigrants, and more and more people will be coming into our jails, so we’ll see them crowded again,” he said. Then he offered a suggestion: “I hope Trump will put the tents on the border for all the illegals that are caught there.”

In September, while Mr. Arpaio was still sheriff, county supervisors floated the idea of shutting down the tents to help offset some of the $50 million in legal fees for his defense on a yearslong racial profiling case. He refused, offering instead to save money by forgoing raises for his deputies and guards.

Only convicted criminals are currently serving time in the tents, for crimes that do not warrant sentences of more than a year: drug possession, domestic violence, car theft. The pink underwear and socks they wear were a point of pride for Mr. Arpaio, who said that if the underwear was pink, no man would want to steal it. (The jail holds women, too.)

The jail served two meatless meals a day; inmates referred to the food as slop and were required to eat while watching the Food Channel in the cafeteria, in the only brick-and-mortar building in the complex. Mr. Arpaio once called it a “concentration camp.”

On Monday, Mr. Penzone said Tent City “goes against everything I stand for.”

He convened a citizens’ group during his first weeks in office, and its recommendation to close Tent City was unanimous. Mr. Woods said that during its investigation, the group’s most surprising finding was that inmates wanted to keep the jail open, asserting that it was better to stay outdoors than to be confined to a six-foot-by-eight-foot cell, he said.

“What does that tell you?” Mr. Woods said. “It tells you that this negative energy that we’ve gotten since 1993, that we’re so tough on prisoners in Maricopa County, this is how we treat them, that it was false.”

Sheriff Penzone said Tent City would close in 45 to 60 days, saving the county about $4.5 million a year. Prisoners will be sent to other jails in the county.