States Experiment With Pup-Tent Penitentiaries

No fireside sing-alongs at Sheriff Knowles's campsite

When St. Lucie County Jail in southeastern Florida started running out of beds for its prisoners, and building a new cellblock was too expensive, Sheriff Bobby Knowles harked back to his days as a Marine for a solution - canvas tents.

Now 100 inmates sweat and slap mosquitoes under the hot Florida sun in "Tent City," a community of olive-drab Army surplus tents set up this month inside the barbed-wire perimeter of the existing jail.

Florida isn't alone in experimenting with pup-tent penitentiaries. As the prison population in the United States explodes and taxpayers become less willing to foot the bill of housing inmates, states are on the lookout for low-cost alternatives. But housing prisoners in tents is raising concerns about security, and some civil rights groups contend that it is cruel.

The number of inmates in prisons and jails in the US has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. In 1995, 1 out of every 167 Americans was incarcerated, according to a recent report by the Justice Department. While the report states that many local jails were below capacity, tougher Florida sentencing laws have resulted in a deluge of bookings, especially on weekends.

"We are at the end of the line here. We have nobody to pass the buck," says Mark Weinberg of the St. Lucie Sheriff's Office.

St. Lucie County originally planned to build a new $1.3 million cellblock for St. Lucie Jail, until it learned it needed $2 million to repair leaking roofs in other facilities. So Mr. Knowles, a former Marine combat sergeant, proposed the tent city. County commissioners allotted him $100,000. Two other Florida sheriffs are now implementing similar plans.

The tent-city concept garners little criticism in a political environment that seems to support harsher punishment for criminals. And it fits with other measures taken by Knowles. Inmates at St. Lucie County wear black and white striped suits, pay for their own lunches, and in some cases their own medical care. Smoking is forbidden.

Not the Holiday Inn

The idea is to offer a deterrent, Knowles says. "A jail shouldn't be an all-expense taxpayer [paid] vacation for someone who has just victimized a person in society," he says. "You go to the next county and commit a crime and get food [and] medical care paid for and a wonderful air-conditioned facility."

Security issues have not been a problem, according to Knowles, in part because all the inmates in tent city are minimum security and most are serving weekend sentences. And unlike other tents set up in remote areas, the tent city is on jail grounds.

According to Knowles, tent cities are viable for many communities. "It's cost effective. We can put up 100 beds for a fraction of the cost [of a facility]," he says, adding that Army surplus tents and prison labor are free. Tents also require less time to construct and don't require that voters pass a capital-improvements bond issue.

Another reason for the approach's popularity may reflect the wishes of local politicians who are eager to appear tough on crime. "The sheriffs have been innovative enough ... to please their public," says Suzanne Kitts of the National Sheriff's Association in Alexandria, Va. "Any time you've got elected officials, you know they don't want the criminals who are supposed to be incarcerated on the street."

Knowles implemented his tent city after visiting Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, which surrounds Phoenix. Mr. Arpaio placed 1,400 inmates in a tented, desert facility adjacent to a dump. Inmates eat baloney lunches and dig graves. No smoking, no coffee, or TV "except Newt Gingrich," jokes Arpaio.

But some civil-rights groups have questioned whether the hard-line approach addresses the root problem.

"I suspect the reason this is being done is to show you are tough enough on crime," says Jenni Gainsborough of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "But the options we should be looking at are alternatives to prison."

Cruel and unusual?

The question, Ms. Gainsborough says, is why so many people are incarcerated in this country, which is rivaled only by Russia in per capita imprisonment. "That's the problem we have to tackle. All the rest is tinkering," she says.

Mr. Weinberg of the St. Lucie Sheriff's Office, counters: "Uncomfortable is not unconstitutional."

Adds Knowles: "No one bothered to call my congressman when I was in Vietnam in 1965 to suggest it might be too hot."

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