At the Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting five days before Christmas, loved ones of people who died in jail spoke out and repeatedly warned that a salary bump wouldn’t save the lives of people behind bars. The supervisors voted unanimously to increase Pima County jail guards’ salaries, making them some of the highest paid in the state at a jail with an alarming 10 deaths so far this year.

Roseanne Inzunza is the mother of Sylvestre Inzunza, who died of an overdose in the jail on Feb. 2, 2022. He was 18 years old. And like many people in the jail, he had not been convicted of a crime.

Roseanne rejected the idea that a salary increase would mitigate the dangers in the jail. She called for “addressing the community and providing resources and support for those who are struggling with mental health issues.”

At the Dec. 20 meeting, the supervisors were considering both a 7.5% salary increase for guards at the Pima County Adult Detention Center and a possible sales tax increase to build a new jail. Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos had requested the extra funds at the previous board of supervisors meeting, on Dec. 6

“Today we are in a crisis,” Nanos said in the Dec. 6 meeting. “That facility in its current condition is not just unlivable for our inmates, but for me, it’s a disgusting place to work. It’s a horrific work environment.”

Neither Nanos nor supervisors spoke at the Dec. 6 meeting about the mortality rate in the jail, which is far above average compared to jails across the country, 90% of which have between zero and two deaths a year.

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Problems at the Pima County jail are worse than leaking pipes and mold in the walls. The 10 people who died this year left behind families, and spent their last day alive in a jail with a per capita mortality rate more than three times higher than the national average. That’s according to national statistics from 2019, the last year from which statistics are available. Since January 2020, there have been at least 29 deaths in the jail.

The raise will make entry-level guards in Pima County among the highest paid in the state, according to County Administrator Jan Lesher. The current starting salary is approximately $45,000. Soon they’ll be making just under $50,000. 

Innocent until proven guilty

Many of the people in the jail are pre-trial detainees. “Death seems like a particularly egregious punishment when there hasn’t been a ruling in someone’s case,” said Andrea Armstrong, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and a national expert on jail and prison conditions.

Loved ones and experts are clear: No one, regardless of conviction, should face a death sentence in jail or in prison. The U.S. justice system has laws to help ensure courts, not guards, decide who lives or dies. Those laws are also meant to ensure that basic standards of physical and mental-health care in detention facilities are met while people await trial or complete their sentences.

In a Dec. 5 letter to the supervisors, Nanos called conditions in the jail “a full-blown crisis,” claiming that the population of inmates in the jail, which was 92% of full capacity at the time, “has reached a life-threatening level.” 

That acknowledgement of “life-threatening” is the only mention — in either the letter from Nanos or at the Dec. 6 board of supervisors meeting — of the spate of recent deaths in the jail. That silence prompted Roseanne Inzunza, and other family members of those who have died, to speak up at the Dec. 20 meeting.

Besides Nanos wanting the extra money to be able to “aggressively recruit, hire, and retain corrections staff,” the sheriff is also requesting an “immediate half-cent sales tax.” That tax would go toward building a new jail. The supervisors have not yet considered that request.

“Will a new bed help somebody from dying?” Shawn Lopez asked the panel of Pima County supervisors on Dec. 20. Lopez is a friend of Sylvestre and his mother, Roseanne.

Sylvestre’s mom and other parents, siblings and friends of people who died in the jail are members of the local group No Jail Deaths, which has been calling out abuses and the lethal conditions in the jail, and now has called out the board of supervisors out for not addressing the deaths.

Frances Guzman is another mother of a son who died in the jail. She also doesn’t understand how a new building will help. When she approached the microphone during the call to the audience at the Dec. 20 meeting, Frances introduced herself, and then could not bring herself to speak. Crying, she apologized, took a breath, and apologized again. 

Frances’s child, Cruz Patino Jr., died in the jail in August 2021. He was 22 at the time and was not convicted of any crime. Her son died of necrotic pneumonia. She said she’s never received an apology from the sheriff’s office. 

“I disagree on asking for a new jail. The cause of their passing is not because they needed a new building, or a new jail,” she said. “Innocent until proven guilty is what it’s supposed to be, and he didn’t get that chance.”  

Former employees say the culture is toxic

When the supervisors began discussing the proposed salary increase, Chair Sharon Bronson, of District 3, shifted the public conversation to address the deaths directly: “Why do we have all these jail deaths? What is the current culture inside the jail that may be contributing to the number of deaths?” 

According to a former employee of the jail who spoke to Arizona Luminaria, the culture inside the jail resembles “a “good ol’ boys’ club.” Multiple former guards and former inmates described systemic anti-inmate animus, including racism and physical and verbal abuse. 

“It seems to me we’ve never had this problem before,” Bronson said, referencing the deaths. “Not to the extent that it exists today. How did we get there? I can’t believe the answer is that we don’t have enough COs” — correctional officers, or guards. “It’s something about the culture inside,” Bronson said at the meeting.

Despite Bronson’s concerns with the culture in the jail, she voted for the salary increase: “It’s playing chess,” she told Arizona Luminaria after the meeting. “We’ll see if it makes a difference. If we do nothing, that says to the sheriff that he’s got a get-out-of-jail free card.”

Bronson also said that she asked the county administrator, Jan Lesher, about whether or not the county could seek help or oversight from the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal agency has a special division that could open an investigation into the jail.

Bronson clarified that the request for a federal investigation must come from the community, not elected officials. 

Adelita Grijalva, of District 5, told Arizona Luminaria after the Dec. 20 meeting that she recently took a tour of the jail facility, and guards “were very burned out, their fuses very short. They’re overwhelmed.” As for the population of inmates, she said: “There are a lot of people that shouldn’t be there.”

“We’re going to have to do something pretty significant,” Grijalva said. 

On Dec. 16, Robert Tsalabounis, 38, died in the jail. His sister, Evangeline Tsalabounis, told Arizona Luminaria that she questions how he possibly could have died when he was supposed to be under supervision. Robert struggled with severe mental illness, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, which Evangeline says should have flagged guards to take extra precautions with him. 

A sheriff investigator told the Tsalabounis family that the cause of death is unknown, she says. Evangeline and another sibling have repeatedly tried to contact the sheriff’s department to ask more questions, but she says they’ve not been able to get through. On Wednesday, citing an ongoing investigation, the sheriff’s department did not offer Arizona Luminaria comment on Robert’s death.

Evangeline opposes the guards’ salary raise. “I don’t approve. I don’t think they’re doing enough as it is for the inmates. The jail is supposed to be responsible for their life.”

“I think Chris Nanos needs more training,” said Christine Salazar during the call to the audience. Her son is currently being held inside the jail.

“I’m here for everybody who can’t be here. I’m a community mom,” she said. “I believe they need to let go of the nonviolent people who are in there.”

As Frances’ allotted three minutes expired, choking back tears, the mother of 22-year-old Cruz Patino Jr., who died inside the jail, spoke to Pima County supervisors, “You guys wished people happy holidays. It’s not so happy for us.”

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John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...