PHOENIX (AP) -Super Bowl celebs, beware.
Sheriff Joe's sign is flashing ``Vacancy'' above his outdoor jail, and one certainly gets the impression that America's toughest lawman or its biggest publicity hound - take your pick - wouldn't mind locking up someone famous before the week is out.
``I hear Paris Hilton is going to be in town,'' Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. ``She better behave herself. We'll put her in one of our female tents and get her on one of our female chain gangs.''
Just to eliminate any confusion, he's not talking about the chains used for measuring first downs on Super Bowl Sunday. These are the kind that bind together inmates before they are sent out to pick up trash along a busy highway, paint over graffiti or bury the indigent in the county cemetery.
Even though I hail from the East Coast, I've heard plenty about this county's swashbuckling, 75-year-old version of Wyatt Earp. I certainly couldn't resist the chance to get a look at Arpaio's most acclaimed or notorious creation (either one applies):
The Tent City Jail.
The sheriff department's Web site openly advertises tours of the ``internationally famous'' facility in southwest Phoenix, and a couple of phone calls later I've got a 10 a.m. time to go behind the 15-foot-high fence, topped by curly strips of razor wire.
Accompanied by a photographer, we are shown the sign that greets visitors as soon as they step through the gate: ``The next time you want to complain about Tent City, STOP! Instead, think how hard life is for our soldiers in Iraq.''
Another menacing sign warns illegal aliens - another of Arpaio's high-profile targets - that they are banned from visiting anyone at the jail, or they risk winding up here themselves.
Our guide, sheriff's Sgt. Rhealea Scheffner, shows us a sample of the spartan meals that inmates get twice a day, costing the taxpayers all of 43 cents. No three square meals in Sheriff Joe's jail. Heck, the animals he takes in - abused cats and dogs, along with pigs, horses and even a turtle - get better food than the inmates.
Brunch is a plastic bag with a roll, bologna, two small oranges and two packs of ``meat sticks.'' Dinner is a hot meal, but the only thing I can make out is the cinnamon bun for desert. Even one of the guards quips, ``There's some sort of slop in the middle.''
I try to stay positive: Heck, it would only take a few weeks in this place to lose those 20 extra pounds I'm carrying around.
Finally, it's time to see those tents.
Working our way to the outer yard, we emerge into the sunlight on a rather cool morning. There they are: surplus, olive-green military tents held up by now-permanent poles, more than a dozen metal bunk beds lined up side-by-side under each covering.
During the summer, when temperatures soar past 100 degrees in the desert, a large fan hanging from the ceiling is the only relief. And what about now, when temperatures can dip into the upper 30s at night?
Well, each inmate is allowed five blankets to keep warm, and more if they need them. But there are no heaters.
``It's not as bad as I thought it would be,'' said Kevin Kaye, who's two months into a four-month sentence for parole violation. ``It's just cold at night. It was really cold last night with the wind blowing in. Other than that, it's like a little city without the girls.''
Some inmates are still buried under their pile of blankets, trying to get some sleep after working a 10-hour shift the night before. Those who work during the day are already up, strolling around the gravel-covered yard.
One man with a sour look drags a rake up and down between the tents - his punishment for getting caught with a cigarette. More serious offenders wind up in lockdown: 23 hours a day spent alone in an indoor cell.
The inmates all wear black-and-white striped outfits, but their undergarments - socks, underwear, thermal shirts - are dyed pink.
Arpaio claims it cuts down on inmates trying to swipe the garments for use on the outside, but it comes across as just another publicity stunt.
The sheriff treats his critics with the same disdain he might have for a drunken driver. He doesn't answer to any government agency, only the voters, who put him in office in 1992 and have re-elected him three times since.
They don't seem to have any problem with the job he's doing, no matter what the civil libertarians might say.
``I report to the people,'' Arpaio said. ``How come I've survived all these years? I'm the toughest sheriff, so a lot of people have tried to shoot me down to get their name in the paper. But I'm not going to change my policies.''
There are no TVs in the yard, of course, but inmates will be allowed to watch the Super Bowl inside on Sunday, as long as they've stayed out of trouble and followed the numerous rules.
(One example: Shirts must be tucked in at all times, which prompts me to look nervously at my own get-up, the black shirt hanging loosely OVER my tan slacks. Fortunately, the guards give me a pass.)
If Xavier Martinez can stay out of trouble for a few more days, he'll be home in time to watch the Super Bowl. The Phoenix man is scheduled to be released Sunday morning after serving a few days for parole violation.
``Basketball is my favorite sport,'' Martinez said. ``But I'll watch the Super Bowl. I'll be pulling for the Patriots.''
If he gets in trouble again, there's always a bed waiting for him at Tent City. Arpaio, in another of the publicity stunts, hung a flashing ``Vacancy'' sign - akin to something one might find at a Motel 6 - atop the tallest guard tower.
Says Scheffner: ``There's always room at the inn.''

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