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Former Jail Standards director on why Lyle Larson, and Joe Arpaio, are wrong on tent jails

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Before the Lege's 2011 session, San Antonio's GOP state Rep. Lyle Larson declared on his campaign website, “Sheriff Joe is right.”

By “Sheriff Joe,” Larson meant Arizona's Joe Arpaio, the country's toughest – some would say most corrupt and abusive – lawman. A Justice Department lawsuit filed last year took Arpaio to task for the “unlawful and unconstitutional” targeting and detention of people because of their “race, color or national-origin.” The feds also charged Arpaio created “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” that “reaches the highest levels of the agency.”

So what, exactly, is Sheriff Joe right about?

Along with being a notorious immigrant hunter, Arpaio has also grown famous for his Tent City, the infamous Maricopa County jail he set up over 20 years ago. There, some 2,000 inmates live under canvas tents in the desert, forced to wear pink under their black-and-white striped uniforms. Arpaio brought back the chain-gang, forcing inmates to crack rocks in the sweltering heat.

Among the first bills filed this session was Larson's HB 177, which again attempts to promote the use of such jails and allow counties to house inmates in tent facilities “indefinitely.” As it currently stands, the state Commission on Jail Standards lets counties use tents for up to three years as a short-term solution to overcrowding without having to build new brick-and-mortar jails.

Larson says he met with Arpaio in 2006 to tour the sheriff's Tent City. Larson, like Arpaio, says such jails are designed to reduce recidivism – i.e. a facility meant to scare inmates out of ever returning – and cut costs. Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson even came out in favor of the proposal last session, writing in an op-ed to the Express-News, “If there is a time to deter inmates from actually wanting to come to our jail, this is it.”

Others have their reservations. Adan Muñoz stepped down as director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards last year to work with Carl R. Griffith & Associates, a consulting firm known for helping reform the state's most troubled jails in order to avoid costly lawsuits. Muñoz recently visited Larson's office with reps from the nonprofit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, urging Larson to re-think his bill.

Among Muñoz's practical concerns, he says tents are too minimum-security for a county jail system. “You've got contraband issues, smuggling issues, and it's an escape risk,” he told the Current last week. Plus, you've got to anticipate more inmate health problem, either due to weather or poor sanitation.

“There are health concerns, weather concerns, and you've still got to build toilet facilities … it's not like you just build tents and the inmates just pee outside the tent,” Muñoz said. “Regardless of what people want to think, inmates still have the right to medical, food, health, and so forth.” he said. “No matter where you put them, the county's still responsible for them.”

Muñoz also takes issue with anyone calling Larson's bill a cost-cutting measure. Consider Arpaio's Tent City, he says. Far from saving money by operating on-the-cheap, Maricopa County has hemorrhaged some $50 million in legal fees to defend itself against lawsuits targeted at the jail. As the Phoenix New Times put it in 2007, “There simply isn't another jail system in America with this history of taxpayer-financed litigation.”

“What [Larson] doesn't bring to the attention of the people is how many lawsuits they've suffered as a result of those tents,” Muñoz said. “Liability does not go away simply because you take inmates out of a jail cell and throw them in a tent.”

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