photo courtesy Maricopa County News/Scott Konicke

Jail Break

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: February 2018
Group Free

Can Sheriff Paul Penzone’s kinder, gentler use of the Tent City grounds help high-risk inmates from returning to jail?

The physical dismantling of Maricopa County’s notorious Tent City jail last October provided the most visible proof that, after 24 turbulent years under the leadership of Joe Arpaio, there is definitely a new sheriff in town.

But Sheriff Paul Penzone’s decision to transform part of that area into a rehabilitation center for inmates underscored the message that a lot more than Arpaio’s iconography (Penzone also axed striped jumpsuits and pink underwear) was going away.

“We want to ensure that [inmates] have an opportunity to be productive, to not return here,” Penzone said in October upon announcing his plans for the 7-acre lot south of the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix.

Late in 2017, county administrators released a video of inmates participating in the new program – a seven-week curriculum conducted in partnership with Maricopa County Correctional Health Services (CHS) called Mosaic, available to inmates with substance abuse issues who are classified as having a moderate-to-high risk of getting arrested again. Watching the video, one can see how supporters of Arpaio – self-styled as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” – might interpret the program as an attempt to transform Tent City into a cushy adult daycare center. Instead of the familiar images of dour detainees on steel-framed bunks under military-surplus tents, we see contented members of the justice-involved population coloring pictures of childhood memories and hashing out relationship issues in discussion circles. A couple of tough-looking bruisers play with “nests” of construction paper scrawled with words representing their comfort zones.

Penzone says Mosaic, a key part of the county’s Smart Justice initiative, is effective with individuals most at risk for recidivism – those not scared straight by their first overnight stay in jail. He says the program, which rolled out last January, will expand from serving 500 inmates to 770.

“This is not about being soft on crime,” he says. “This is about focusing on solution-oriented law enforcement practices... to focus on the incarceration of those who truly need to be incarcerated, while leading others from the population to resources that may be long-term solutions for them.”

Surprisingly, such holistic practices are not new. “A lot of this work was done even when Arpaio was here,” says Dr. Dawn Noggle, the CHS mental health director who leads Mosaic, which grew out of the ALPHA (Aware, Learn, Plan, Help and Accept) program for substance abusers started more than 20 years ago. She says Arpaio stayed out of the way of the program, but did little to promote it.

“But now we have a sheriff who not only isn’t impeding it, he really believes in this work,” Noggle says. “In his first week of office, with everything he had to deal with, he came and spoke at the Arizona Mental Health and Criminal Justice Coalition. I mean, he’s the real deal.”

Mosaic has been garnering media attention as a program addressing opioid addiction, but the program actually looks at the wide variety of factors that keep chronic offenders coming back to jail.

“The bulk of the arrests we see are for misdemeanors, but for people who are chronic offenders,” Noggle says. “Every jailing contributes to the fragmentation and disintegration of whatever social fabric people can develop... you start to see the intersection of mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness, trauma and jail recidivism. Looking at the whole picture is what the work of Smart Justice is about.”

The Mosaic classroom occupies the former dayroom in the Tent City space. As for all that now-vacant outdoor space, Penzone says he’d like to use it to house the animals that often end up at the jail as evidence in criminal cases.

“Right now they’re held in an old, antiquated jail where they get very little stimulus and exercise,” he says. “So what I’m trying to do is acquire private funding to build a truly healthy and state-of-the-art kennel system that will be combined with an outside, shaded animal park... And then we’ll infuse the detention population to act as their caretakers – to not only provide services, but to learn about compassion and care.”

It may all sound touchy-feely to supporters of MCSO’s previous sheriff, but Penzone is quick to counter that perception.

“It’s not just a ‘feel good’ program,” he says. “It’s a program that delivers results and reduces the issues of drug addiction and recidivism. And that’s a win-win not only for detainees who have challenges, but for this whole community as well.”

Tent City by the Numbers
Year opened: 1993
Intended capacity: 2,100 inmates
peak population: 1,700
Population in recent years: between 700 and 800
Annual operating cost: $8.7 million
Cost to rehouse inmates: $136,653.60 came from the Jail Enhancement Fund (JEF) in the Maricopa County Custody Budget.
Date closed: Penzone announced his decision to close Tent City in April 2017. The last inmates – sentenced to work furlough or work release programs – were rehoused at Durango in October.