Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Candle to Curse the Darkness

A woman holds an electric candle above her head as thousands of Unitarians file past her during the National Day of Witness at Tent City Saturday night. 

The Unitarian Universalists are in Phoenix for their annual general assembly. This year they brought their tradition of fighting for social justice to "Tent City," the infamous outdoor jail created by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the early 1990s to cheaply expand the county jail system. 

The tents have been a lightning rod for critics almost from the day they opened. Critics maintain that housing prisoners outdoors, with no air conditioning, in canvas tents on concrete slabs, is inhumane. The Sheriff counters that if tents were good enough for soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan they're good enough for his prisoners. 

No one disputes that the tents are hot. Really hot. I had an assignment in Tent City one summer when the daytime temperature was 110F. The thermometer in one of the Tent City tents showed 122F. 

Being in Tent City is like being in a convection oven. The sun beats down on the concrete and gravel surface and shoots up into the tents. There's no escaping the suffocating heat. And it doesn't cool down much at night. 

Once the dog days of summer set in, by early July, the night time lows in the Phoenix area and the tents (which sit on the edge of downtown) it cools off to only about 95F. 

I don't know if housing prisoners in those conditions meets the legal definition of inhumane, but it's not how I want to live - housed with 10-20 others in 60 year old canvas tents (the tents are Vietnam era and older army surplus tents). 

It's easy for the Sheriff to call the people in Tent City "criminals," but most of the prisoners in his jails, including the tents, are still awaiting trial. They haven't been convicted of anything except lacking the resources to make bail. Even among the ones who have been convicted, the prisoners are mostly "doing time" for DUI, low level drug dealing, prostitution and other misdemeanors. The murders, drug kingpins, pedophiles and rapists are transferred to Arizona's Department of Corrections shortly after they're sentenced. 

Saturday's protest was peaceful. The Unitarians and their local allies (the protest was cosponsored by Puente Arizona, a local human rights organization) held up their small electric candles in the darkness and sang hymns and civil rights era protest songs.