Neither people nor information are easy to get out of jail. That makes reporting on these barred institutions immensely challenging.
Since 2020, 28 people have died in Pima County Adult Detention Center, the Tucson jail where, on any given day, about 1,900 people are locked up — many awaiting trials. When I first started hearing about deaths in the jail, nearly a year ago, I recognized it was an important story, but didn’t know what outlet would publish a close and careful look at the conditions inside, and didn’t know how I would get the information necessary to understand the true extent of the problem.
I was still a freelancer at that point, and Arizona Luminaria only existed in the minds of its founders.
But then: people kept on dying inside. Pedro Xavier Martinez Palacios Jr., 24 years old, died on Jan. 14 of an apparent overdose. Sylvestre Inzunza, 18, died on Feb. 2 — another overdose. Alejandro Romo, 42, died on May 13 — the cause of death unclear. This was only five months into the year, and coming off 10 deaths in the jail in 2021. Something was seriously wrong.
Around that time I was invited by a couple local activists to listen to some of the family members of people who had died inside.
By last summer, I had sat down with family members multiple times, and was by then working for Arizona Luminaria, and ready to start looking more closely into the jail.
Read the story
‘Unconstitutional hole’: How Pima County jail deaths — one recently ruled a homicide — are part of a grim pattern
“Give me answers!” Melissa Welch shouts, arching her back and aiming her voice toward the flat facade of the Pima County Adult Detention Complex. Two months earlier, inside that jail, guards repeatedly shocked her little brother, Wade Welch, with a taser.…
In August, not long after Wade Welch died in the jail — his death, coming minutes after being repeatedly shocked with a taser and violently manhandled by a group of guards, was ruled a homicide — I met his sister, Melissa, at a protest march.
To talk more comfortably, we decided to meet up at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Tucson’s east side. As we were ordering our coffees, making small talk with the cashier, Melissa casually mentioned, nodding in my direction, “He’s writing about my brother, who was murdered.”
The cashier didn’t know how to respond. Neither did I. I told Melissa I was sorry — a sentiment I had already repeatedly expressed. Tears were welling in her eyes. We went outside to talk.
The emotions pent up and sometimes bursting out of Melissa, as well as the other mothers, sisters, sons, and friends of those who have died in the jail, were sometimes so raw I felt they should be talking to a therapist instead of a reporter. They repeatedly assured me, however, that they wanted the truth to be told, that they wanted to honor the lives of their loved-ones by publicly airing the neglect and abuse — as they saw it — that had led to their deaths.
I kept on gathering information and stories, talking to as many people associated with the jail as I could find.
In the end, I spoke with around two dozen family members or friends of loved ones who’ve died in the jail, as well as five people who were formerly detained there, three former employees, three officials from the sheriff’s department, including the sheriff himself, and four national experts on prisons and jails.
I also reached out to the mayor of Tucson, all five of the county supervisors, and the head of the sheriff’s department civilian advisory review board — none of whom responded to my questions.
Two of the former employees I spoke with had over five years of experience working in the jail, and they had a lot to say about the place: accusations of mismanagement, gross medical neglect, physical and verbal abuse, racism, and generally deplorable conditions.
Both former employees, however, were nervous about speaking out. One of them was so disturbed by their managers’ abusive mistreatment of both inmates and employees that they feared being targeted even though they were no longer employed there.
It’s never easy working with unnamed sources who want to blow the whistle. As a reporter, I have to do the extra work of triple or quadruple-checking the source is who they say they are, that they’re not motivated only by some personal grievance that could skew their perspective, and corroborate, as best as possible, every claim they make.
One way to corroborate is through public records. We requested public records through the Freedom of Information Act relating to the deaths from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Pima County Medical Examiner and the jail records division and received back over 200 pages before publication that backed up the video and the accounts from interviews. We also reviewed four lawsuits filed by three families of people who have died and spoke with attorneys in each of their cases.
Above all, our priority is keeping our sources safe, not making a mistake that could reveal their identity or compromise them in any way.
We spoke with a third former employee and whistleblower, who provided key insights into medical care at the jail, but, in the end, we weren’t able to obtain the documentation necessary to prove that they worked there when they claimed they did. I believed them, and believed what they told me, but we had set a standard for working with unnamed sources, and, with this individual, we couldn’t meet that standard. We left out of the article everything they told me.
For the other two employees, I reviewed paystubs, former identification cards, emails, and text messages to ensure I was talking to the right people. I also spoke at length with them about why they wanted to speak out and how we could safely proceed. And then I listened, asking hundreds of questions. We met in person, as well as spoke and texted frequently. Meanwhile, I was still talking to the families, going to protests and vigils, reaching out to attorneys and national experts on jail conditions, and talking to Sheriff Chris Nanos.
After I reached out to him in early October, the sheriff invited me into his office. We sat down and had a long and frank conversation, during which he confirmed serious problems in the jail — at one point calling the conditions “horrendous” — but disputed some of the numerical claims I was making.
For instance, Nanos said that for decades there have been an average of about 8 annual deaths in the jail — which would mean that under his tenure, the mortality rate had held steady. But both former employees and previously reported statistics say otherwise: that the average annual number of deaths had previously been much lower, and had only recently risen to nearly ten a year.
Pima County maintains a dashboard of in-custody deaths, but it’s infrequently updated. For example, as of Nov. 30, two weeks after the death of Hugh Gillespie from an apparent suicide on Nov. 15, his death still isn’t being counted.
Nationally, it’s also difficult to get accurate and up-to-date statistics about deaths in jails. Because of a change in the way they collect data — and a lack of funding to provide needed oversight in reporting jail deaths, among other issues — the Bureau of Justice Statistics only has death rates up until 2019. In September, the Government Accountability Office published a report revealing that in 2021 up to 1,000 deaths in jails and prisons were not properly reported, as required by law.
Nanos also disputed how I was calculating that the jail has an annual per capita death rate of more than three times the national average. I had already double-checked my math. So now I triple-checked it, had a colleague at Arizona Luminaria check and double check it, and then I reached out to a few professional statisticians who specialize in prisons and jails. They both checked and double-checked my math, confirming that I was right: Pima County jail, in 2021, had an annual death rate more than three times the 2019 national average.
And then the sheriff’s office stopped responding to my requests for comment. They repeatedly told me that if I wanted to ask any further questions, I would need to submit an official public records request.
As I continued to report out the story, reading through many hundreds of pages of documents and organizing many hours of interview transcripts, people kept on dying. Since I began reporting the story in earnest in the summer until we published in November, four additional people died in the jail: Terrance Salazar on Oct. 3; Benjamin White on Oct. 6; Hugh Gillespie Burford on Nov. 15; and Amin Shaheed Muhammad Ali on Nov. 20.
So far this year, nine people have died in the jail.
To be able to portray and understand how Wade Welch died, I watched the edited bodycam video, which had previously been publicly released in late August by the Pima Regional Critical Incident Team, ten or more times — an excruciating experience. I then compared what I saw in that video to the policy guidelines I obtained from Welch’s family’s attorney. I also attended various rallies, marches, and vigils, at the jail and elsewhere, both to see the jail itself and get to know the family members and concerned citizens.
We finished an initial draft of the article more than a month before we were able to publish. The editing process on an article this long and complicated isn’t quick, and we also wanted to outsource an extra level of fact-checking to make sure we had all of the details right, as well as have an attorney give it a thorough legal review.
The dawdling-seeming pace of publication was keeping me up at night. I knew we had valuable information to share with the public. The family members of people who died in the jail were also frustrated. They had trusted me with their stories, with their painful and loving memories, and it was a struggle to explain why, week after week, we were still sitting on the story. Behind the scenes, however, we were working hard combing through again and again, working through four, five, or more drafts, plus those external reviews for fact-checking and legal concerns. Near publication, the document we were editing had more than 1,400 comments on it.
As we continue to investigate the state of the jail, I’m filing more records requests, combing through more documents, reaching out to more people who have experience in the jail, and, again, trying to understand what the sheriff’s department and the county are, or are not, doing about the spike in deaths.
And yet despite spending months looking into the facility, I realize that I, as well as readers and the general public — unless they’ve had the misfortune to suffer in the jail — still only have a minimal understanding of the actual conditions inside.
With ongoing deaths, no clear strategy from the sheriff or county to improve conditions, that lack of understanding is a deadly problem. And that is why we will continue to investigate, continue to probe and listen, file more records requests and cast as wide of a net as possible so we can all get a better sense of what needs to be done to keep our community safe — and alive.