Tent City jail (Deirdre Hamill/The Arizona Republic)

I had written on another topic today, but it suddenly came to my attention that a longtime neighbor has a birthday today. So I’ve set aside my first idea to commemorate the occasion.

I would hesitate to call it celebratory, but many others would disagree with me. In fact, an actual celebration is planned by the birthday boy’s father, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He is pleased to raise a toast to the 18th birthday of his own Tent City jail.

18. It’s hard to believe. Barely yesterday, it seems, the little-jail-that-could was toddling about, all heat-stroke-and-ice-chips-and-pink-underwear. Now, it’s nearly a strapping adult. Law-and-order folks may even tear up.

Today’s Arizona Republic has a good article on the anniversary. Written by JJ Hensley, it examines what Tent City stands for and how it has weathered controversy.

I say weathered on purpose, of course. So as we pass through increasingly steamy summers, one wonders when enough is enough. We recall a photo of the sheriff squinting at a handheld thermometer, trying to gauge the temperature inside the tents. But we hardly know why he bothers, because really, how hot is too hot for him? He’s said recently that 145 degrees is just fine.

As I started reading today’s story, I was ready for a cringeworthy article that praises with faint damn—one that throws a few tut-tuts the sheriff’s way, but otherwise revels in the human circus created by a county official.

But the article avoids that tone. Instead, it’s a balanced piece that provides quotes from detractors, like lawyer Mike Manning, and from quasi-supporters, like an inmate who chooses Tent City over the traditional brick-and-mortar cell because it allows him to work outside the compound during the day.

The sheriff checks the temperature.

Kind of like the car dealer who combines something you need—like air-conditioning—with something you don’t—like undercoating. I guess I’ll take the undercoating.

Tent City, like all cultural icons, has grown up to stand for more than it is, which is canvas and dirt. As the article says:

In many ways, the compound is the ultimate reflection of Arpaio, the controversial five-term county sheriff who is often accused of valuing publicity more than prudent law-enforcement policy. Tent City was a fresh idea when first proposed, bringing with it a combination of austerity and retribution that appealed to Arpaio’s supporters. It has since survived riots, inmate deaths, lawsuits and legal challenges as it has come to epitomize Arpaio.

The sheriff promises a celebration of sorts today. Inmates will likely participate, especially if the event is combined with a Popsicle and some relief from the heat, however brief.

More photos of Tent City are here.

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