/ Modified feb 19, 2024 4 p.m.

The Blue Ribbon Commission is over - what happens now for the Pima County Jail?

A look back on the last year as the Board of Supervisors is set to discuss a revealing jail report tomorrow.

jail prison bars cell hero Bars of a jail cell.
AZPM Staff

In late 2022, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos told the Board of Supervisors that conditions inside the Pima County Adult Detention Center were a “full-blown crisis.” At that time, inmates filled the jail to 92% capacity, while the number of corrections officers fell by 30%.

In response, the county chartered a Blue Ribbon Commission. The 10 volunteers spent the last year examining the issues facing the jail and whether or not the county should build a new one.

Now, their work has culminated in a nearly 300-page report that paints a picture of an aging facility that consistently fails to handle the changing demands of the jail population.

In December, the commission released its initial findings report that laid out two feasible options - renovate the existing buildings and add a new housing unit, or start over with a brand-new building.

But even those involved will tell you it’s far from that simple. Besides the obstacle of cost, which is estimated to start at over $600 million, the commission’s final report is an illustration of how the jail is now serving as a convergence point of society’s biggest problems.

“The community does not have a place for people who are truly in crisis. That's really the crux of it,” said India Davis, commission member and former Corrections Bureau Chief for the jail.

Health Issues

The jail is particularly deficient in handling inmates with substance abuse issues and mental illness, according to the final Blue Ribbon report.

This point is not exactly new. A Nov. 7 memo detailed the county has withheld hundreds of thousands of dollars from Naphcare, the healthcare provider for the jail, for failing to meet staffing requirements.

Furthermore, in a public survey about the report, over 70% of respondents said the detox units and mental health facilities each needed improvement.

In 2023, an average of 400 inmates needed mental health evaluations a month, and a third of the jail's population was on long-term medication.

Healthcare providers told commissioners there’s a serious need for quiet housing and therapy rooms in the jail, but right now there’s no space to expand.

Davis said at the current rate of mentally ill bookings, the jail will need bigger space.

“It takes more people to manage people who are in crisis,” she said.

The fentanyl crisis also complicates medical care. 61% of new inmates booked at the jail are put on detox protocols, averaging over 800 people a month.

Fentanyl also has a much longer and more intense withdrawal period than other drugs, meaning inmates need to stay there longer.

One issue with the current setup is detox facilities are not located adjacent to the medical wing.

“You need higher observation. You really need to have those particular inmates co-located with your medical unit so that you can have a quick and speedy response. Their health is a little bit more fragile,” Davis said.

Community Controversy

In late 2022, right before the Blue Ribbon Commission formed, reporting from the independent news outlet AZLuminaria called the jail an “unconstitutional hole.” While most jails see one or two deaths a year, the report found Pima County has an average of ten, making it one of the most deadly in the country.

Those findings fueled the public backlash against the Commission’s efforts to build a new jail. Activist groups who rallied around the family members of those who have died in the jail spoke to the Board of Supervisors and even held a protest that canceled a commission meeting in August.

To those like Drew Fellows, a paralegal, and member of the No New Jail Coalition, the biggest point of contention was the commission’s findings that Corrections would need to add 1,100 beds for the next 20 years.

“The scope of the Blue Ribbon Commission itself, there really wasn't even an option to even consider depopulation,” Fellows said.

The deaths have also created an attitude of distrust.

“Why would we trust this agency with almost a billion dollars to build an entirely new facility, for not even an announced estimated operating costs per year, when they have a track record over several decades now of mismanagement, underfunding, and understaffing?” said Fellows.

But those with seemingly opposing opinions on what should be done seem to agree on the issues more than you’d expect.

Namely, society’s most vulnerable should not be in jail.

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos has repeatedly said that he thinks a new jail is still the best option, but his jail should not be expected to handle every problem.

He said if the population struggling with mental health in the jail were able to be moved to a designated facility, the population of PDADC would decrease by “almost half.”

“So then you wouldn't need 3,000 beds,” Nanos said.

But at the same time, the sheriff says he is worried about accommodating too much.

“To build an entire facility around those needs, you're telling your community that if you want services, you got to be arrested first,” he said. “And that's the image I want to avoid. It shouldn't be at your front door of any jail, that should be going on in the community.”

On the other side, activists like Fellows maintain that investment in services outside the jail is the best way to solve the problems inside.

“These folks need adequate housing, they need health care. The roots of crime are not crime itself. It's poverty,” Fellows said.

Even commissioners like Davis are admitting the problems extend far beyond the physical building.

“We don't believe that a bigger, better jail is going to solve the community social justice problem…the substance use, the alcoholism problem, the homelessness problem, but it definitely will fix some of the things that are happening based on the age and deterioration of that building,” she said.

Looking Ahead

Last week, County Administrator Jan Lesher released her opinion on the report and recommended four options to the Board of Supervisors. Her first priority is hiring an independent contractor to gauge the most pressing infrastructure repairs in the report, like rusting pipes, damaged plumbing, and elevators, and another working group to examine cost.

She also agreed the current jail falls short in healthcare needs, and wants to increase the corrections health services budget for the next fiscal year.

And, most significantly, Lesher called for the formation of a new commission, this time tasked with exploring a lower bed capacity and alternatives to incarceration. Community activist groups are seeing this move as a huge win and calling the potential new jail “dead” on social media.

However, Lesher says the Board could choose to do any number of things.

“They can choose to approve the four recommendations, they could deny the four recommendations, they could deny, you know, they could approve part of the recommendations, they could direct staff to go back and start over,” she said.

Projects of this scale take time to plan, and even more to build. For the time being, the intersecting problems at the jail will undoubtedly continue. But depending on the Board of Supervisors' decision tomorrow, there could be a clearer path forward.

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