A crowd estimated at 1,500 protested Maricopa County's Tent City jail on Saturday night outside the county's Durango Complex, where Tent City is located.
Most of the protesters were bused in from the Unitarian-Universalist Association's national convention, which had been going on all week in downtown Phoenix.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio offered to give the church leaders a tour of Tent City to let them see the living conditions and show them at the inmates aren't as bad off living outdoors as some people think.
The tour began shortly before sunset while most of the protesters were still getting organized to head to the site. Church leaders were allowed to talk to inmates privately, asking them about living in the heat, availability of water, and other issues.
The inmates told the visitors that the temperatures in the tents range from 120º on the bottom bunk to 140º on the top bunk. They said they often have to wait substantial periods of time to get water or ice. They said cockroaches and rats are common in the tents.
The church leaders were also taken into the inmates' dining room where they asked about the meals. Sheriff Arpaio told them that inmates get two meals a day – a cold brunch with fruit, bread, and lunch meat, cheese, or yogurt around mid-morning, and a hot dinner in the early evening. Sample meals were brought out for the guests to see and try.
Sheriff's officials emphasized that the meals meet all USDA nutritional guidelines – much healthier food than most people eat, officials said – but the high nutrition means little flavor since salt, pepper, and most other seasonings are missing. Part of the reason the inmates complain about the food, sheriff's officials said, is that due to the nutritional requirements, the meals change little from day to day.
After the tour, the church leaders were allowed to address the media. Unitarian-Universalist president Rev. Peter Morales said, "I'm saddened and appalled that this kind of thing happens in my country. To see something that is this degrading and mean-spirited is deeply disappointing." Sheriff Arpaio pointed out that his jails get high marks from federal inspectors. Morales responded, "There's an important distinction we have to make between what is legal, and what is moral and ethical. I don't think hardly anyone who would walk through and observe what we just observed would think this is the way we should be treating our fellow human beings."
Rev. Geoffrey Black, head of the United Church of Christ, echoed Morales' thoughts: "It is inappropriate for a country such as ours, that knows better, to allow this kind of treatment. These people are receiving what I would call cruel and unusual punishment."
And William Schulz, president and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and former head of Amnesty International in the U.S., said, "International standards for the treatment of prisoners are simple and straighforward when it comes to the question of prolonged exposure to heat. This is clearly a violation of those standards."
Schulz said when he was with Amnesty International, he saw prisons in countries around the world, and the conditions at Tent City are nearly as bad as some of the worst he has seen. Sheriff Arpaio objected, "Don't ever compare my jails with those countries. That's an insult."
Meanwhile, along Durango Street, buses full of protesters began arriving around dusk for the event which had two parts: a hundred or so people gathered across from the entrance to Tent City with protest signs and chants. Most of the crowd walked a block further down to sing hymns and hold battery-powered candles in a candlelight vigil. Many of the protesters wore yellow t-shirts that read "Standing on the side of love," which is a slogan of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
PHOTOS: Sheriff Arpaio greets church leaders outside Tent City before their tour.
The sheriff begins the tour inside the fences of Tent City:
Church leaders question inmates about conditions in Tent City:
Outside the jail complex, protesters express their opposition to Sheriff Arpaio:
A couple dozen demonstrators gathered in support of the sheriff:
Most of the protesters gathered near a stage where they were led in song and prayer: