In 1993, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (Arizona) opened Tents Jail after deciding that he was not going to release any inmates due to overcrowding, a common practice in other detention and correction systems. Dubbed “Tent City,” it encompasses two units; In-Yard and Con-Tents. In-Yard houses inmates that have been sentenced to a year or less that are apart of the inmate labor workforce. The inmate labor workforce keeps inmate-housing costs down. Under the supervision of detention officers and civilians, inmates work in Food Factory, Laundry, various housekeeping services, MASH Unit (no-kill animal shelter), and Chain Gang. Con-Tents houses our “part-time” inmates—those who are sentenced to court appointed release programs, Work Furlough or Work Release.
Since its inception, over 500,000 people have served time in Tents.
When I first started my detention career with the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office in 2005, I didn’t dream of working at Tent City. It wasn’t until years later that I decided to work at as many different facilities and specialized duty posts in order to make me a well-rounded officer. I started my career in Madison Street Jail’s Psychiatric Unit, which is no longer open. Since then, I’ve worked Central Intake, Extraditions, and other facilities, all of which I’ve dealt with male and female inmates of different security classifications from juveniles to Special Management (a higher level of maximum security).
When my ten-year mark was approaching, I decided to submit a transfer to Tents. Why not? Sounded like an adventure.
Contrary to popular belief, it does get cold in Arizona. I started working graveyards at Tents in the dead of winter 2014. Prior to this, I was assigned to an indoor, temperature-controlled, medium security male facility for two years. I’ve always kept a hoodie in my car but this was a bone-chilling, Arctic kind of cold. I learned very quickly that layers keep you warm. Within a week of my arrival, I was sporting Under Armour’s ColdGear Infrared leggings and a mock turtleneck underneath my uniform, heavy 5.11 jacket and beanie, and North Face gloves. On New Year’s Eve 2014, we got rain and snow on the yard.
Having a great group of officers makes a world of a difference on those nights. Great conversations and jokes take your mind off of freezing your butt off while maintaining security on the yard. Those nights felt like the best camping trips…without the booze.
"Our 'Contraband Wall', which has different articles of contraband that was found on the yard including 'shanks', jail-made knives. NOTE, toothbrushes are much smaller now and are great for cleaning guns, when you accidentally take some home." -Ursula
Currently, the inmate to officer ratio on the yard is roughly 100 to 1. While the inmates housed in In-Yard and Con-Tents are deemed as minimum security or low risk, they are still inmates. They are still capable of the unthinkable. Having that mindset as officers keeps us and other inmates safe. We constantly search the yard and inmates for contraband due to the constant movement to and from work and the accessibility to the public. I have seen more of a variety of contraband, such as marijuana Gummy Bears, Spice/K2, medication that was not prescribed, cigarettes, and coconut oil while working at Tents, than at any other facility that I’ve ever worked. (Yes, coconut oil—in January, I found a Zip-Lock bag full of coconut oil in a bra of a Work Release female when I conducted a pat search on her. She said it was for her hair.)
One of the best things about Tents is being close to MASH II. MASH II holds livestock that is evidence in animal crimes or awaiting adoption. There are horses, donkeys, miniature horses and donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, llamas, etc. While these animals are in our custody, MASH officers, veterinarians, and working inmates rehab them if they were neglected. Some nights, I bring a five-pound bag of carrots and feed the horses and donkeys. It’s actually therapeutic.
As the summer months are quickly approaching, I’m excited for the Arizona summer challenges. Seasoned officers often tell stories of 115+ degree nights because of the rocks and concrete “cooking” all day.
I believe that every detention officer in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office should work Tents at some point of their careers. I’ve learned more about the programs that we offer inmates, court-appointed release programs, Adult Probation, and experienced environmental challenges that I have never had before.
If you are in Phoenix, Arizona, we offer free tours during normal business hours. I would like to encourage all of you to visit.
Ursula Williams has been in law enforcement for over ten years. She is also a certified firearms instructor at a local gun range, holds several armorer certificates, and a competitive shooter in pistol, 3-Gun, and precision rifle. Outside of the shooting sports, she enjoys to traveling, skydiving, reading, and whiskey.