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Story highlights

Maricopa County Sheriff announces closure of controversial Tent City

Arpaio called himself "America's toughest sheriff"

(CNN) —  

Tent City, the infamous outdoor jail in Arizona where inmates wore pink underwear and shuffled around in chain gangs, will close, officials announced Tuesday.

Joe Arpaio, the former top cop in Phoenix’s Maricopa County, established the jail in 1993. But he was voted out of office last year. Soon, Tent City will also be gone.

Erected in a remote area in Arizona, Tent City became a symbol of Arpaio’s 24-year tenure as sheriff and magnet for controversy. Critics said the facility was demeaning for inmates, who stayed in scorching heat over 100 degrees, ate calorie-controlled meals and were given pink accessories including their underwear.

Arpaio promoted the desert camp, burnishing his reputation and touting himself as “America’s toughest sheriff.”

But his successor, who defeated Arapaio in November’s election, said there was no evidence that Tent City deterred crime.

“This facility became more of a circus atmosphere for the general public,” said Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone. “Starting today, that circus ends and these tents come down.”

The new sheriff in town is reversing many of Arpaio’s controversial policies.

Arpaio: ‘Insulting to call it a circus’

At a news conference Tuesday, Penzone estimated closing Tent City would save $4.5 million.

Running the outdoor, canvas camp was difficult for detention center staff, who had to wear full gear in “very trying conditions” with “difficult dynamics,” he said.

Cobbled together using donated Korean War tents, Tent City was established to alleviate prison overcrowding. It was in a remote area in Arizona, known for intense heat. Record temperatures inside a tent had reached 140 degrees, according to a 2016 press release from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.

Arpaio dismissed heat concerns, saying: “If our servicemen and women serve in the Middle East in extreme hot weather over there, our inmates can deal with the heat here as well in Tent City.”

When reached for comment by KPHO, a CNN affiliate in Phoenix, Arpaio denounced the jail’s closure.

“It’s disgusting and insulting to call it a circus,” he said.

“It is a deterrence. [The inmates] hate that place. I don’t care what [Penzone] says.”

Officials say economics drove the jail’s closure.

Tent City has the capacity of holding 2,100 inmates and peaked at 1,700 inmates, former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods said at a news conference.

“The last several years it held 700-800 inmates and yet the cost for Tent City has stayed the same, whether you have 1,700 inmates or half of that. So economically it’s become a problem,” Woods said.

Moving the inmates will take several months, Penzone said.

Penzone disbands Arpaio’s policies

Since taking helm of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office on January 1, Penzone has sought to undo many of Arpaio’s policies.

For one, the sheriff’s office no longer issues news releases with a page-long photo of Arpaio watermarked on the background of every page.

Arpaio, the poster child for hardline immigration policy in the United States, was ordered to be tried on a criminal contempt charge. A federal judge found Arpaio and three members of his office to be in civil contempt because they allegedly violated court orders intended to keep the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from racially profiling Latinos. His trial is scheduled for this month.

Under Arpaio, the sheriff’s office led workplace raids leading to criminal ID theft charges for undocumented immigrants.

Penzone, a Democrat and former Phoenix police officer, has said the county’s deputies will not take the lead on immigration enforcement anymore. He reached a compromise with Immigration and Customs Enforcement after initially announcing that the sheriff’s office wouldn’t honor the agency’s request to hold inmates who would otherwise be released, according to CNN affiliate KNXV.

Shortly after taking office, he disbanded Arpaio’s Cold Case Posse, which investigated former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

A staunch supporter of Donald Trump, Arpaio insisted that Obama was not a US citizen and that his birth certificate was fraudulent – a claim that has been thoroughly debunked.

CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian and Theodore Schleifer contributed to this report.