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States Experiment With Pup-Tent Penitentiaries

No fireside sing-alongs at Sheriff Knowles's campsite

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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."

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