Editor’s note: This story is part of a series funded by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Yunan Tutu was 26 when he died inside the Pima County jail. The court had ruled Tutu incompetent to stand trial, and charged jail wardens to care for Tutu and work to “restore competency” before he would head to a trial. He languished inside one of the nation’s deadliest jails for six months. 

When a doctor checked on Tutu two weeks after Christmas, he was reportedly refusing food and eating his own feces. He was being held for a “failure to appear” violation on a $1,200 bond. If Tutu could have paid his bond, he would have been waiting for his court date outside of jail. If Tutu could have paid his bond, criminal justice experts say there’s a good chance he would still be alive.

“There are people being held there on trivial charges, on low bail who are literally only in jail because they’re poor,” says David Fathi, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “If they could scrape together $1,000 or $1,500 dollars or $500, they wouldn’t be in the jail but sitting at home awaiting their court date.” 

“This” — ending cash bail — “is just an obvious solution,” Fathi says.

In 2022, 12 people died in Pima County’s Adult Detention Center. That’s a per capita mortality rate over four times the national average, and higher than New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, which saw 19 deaths in 2022. The population of Rikers Island currently hovers slightly below 6,000. The population of Pima County Jail is around 1,800.

At least 7 of the people who died in Pima County jail in 2022 had cash bonds set. Of those held without cash bonds and who died in the jail last year, one was being held on an out-of-state warrant and another, Robert Tsalabounis, had been deemed incompetent and was being held in jail “to restore the Defendant’s competency.”

County officials have approached the problems proliferating in Pima County jail by either focusing on increasing staff-to-inmate ratios or simply reducing the population of the jail. Looking at efforts in other counties and talking to experts on jails and community safety underscores the importance of a more holistic, community-wide approach, as well as a more concerted effort to get and keep people out of jail.

“The best way to make a jail less deadly is to reduce the number of people who are held there,” Fathi says.

After six years of multi-million dollar grant funding to reduce the jail population, the county has only made modest progress, and despite the reduction of inmates, the jail has become more deadly in recent years. Experts advocate for an all-hands and “wraparound approach,” tapping resources from the city, county, NGOs, activists, and the broader community.

One way to address the potential harms people face in jail is bail reform — a policy change several counties and states have tried and had measured success. Often benefiting people who are poor, those who can’t afford to pay a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, bail reform lets people out of jail to wait for their day in court at home.

“Just because you have tried diversion policies or tried bail reform doesn’t mean you’ve tried it effectively,” said Insha Rahman, the Vice President of Advocacy and Partnerships at Vera Institute of Justice, an organization that seeks to end mass incarceration and advocates for a fair, accountable justice system.. Rahman cited the “fallacy of believing that jails make us safer,” and pointed to the need for major reforms to help people before they may end up in jail, while they are in jail, and when they are released. 

In December, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos asked the county’s board of supervisors for more money. He wants to pay the jail’s guards more and, possibly, build an entirely new jail. 

The board of supervisors approved Nanos’ first request. The second request, the new jail, would require a sales tax to fund what could be a quarter-billion dollar project. In a Jan. 11 memo, Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher called for a Blue Ribbon Commission to study the idea and how a new jail might be funded. Lesher estimated that the new jail could cost as much as $380 million.

The reasons Nanos was seeking these fixes were many, including overcrowding, low staff-to-inmate ratios and crumbling jail infrastructure. Nanos, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and the county have all been facing increasing public pressure and scrutiny as people continue to suffer and die in the jail. 

Both former and current guards have spoken anonymously to Arizona Luminaria explaining that they are overwhelmed, and both guards and inmates are in danger and on edge. 

On a recent day in mid-January, three shanks — jail-made rudimentary knives — were discovered in a single day. Arizona Luminaria exclusively obtained images of the shanks.

A current correctional officer, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the press, said, “The jail is less and less safe every day due to low staffing levels. The inmates recognize it and that’s why they’re taking measures to protect themselves.”

A leaked photo of a shank recently found by guards at the Pima County jail. Officers say inmates are increasingly turning to such makeshift weapons due to lack of security in the jail.

And yet, while staffing levels may help ease the stress of the guards and mitigate the problem of some types of contraband, more needs to be done.

“You can pick dozens and dozens of examples where communities across the country have done that” — increase staff-to-inmate ratios — “and they have not actually solved the crisis in custody,” Rahman said. “It just doesn’t work. Simply having more space and a more modern facility or even having more staff doesn’t change the conditions behind bars.”  

What does work, Rahman explained, is implementing a concrete culture change, adding more and different kinds of programs for inmates. “And none of that requires the kind of money or new construction that is usually the go-to response,” he said.

Stalled efforts

To mitigate harms and curb deaths in jail, criminal justice experts recommend dramatically lowering the number of inmates.

There are different ways to achieve that, including simply arresting fewer people or through a variety of reforms to the cash bail system. Bail is leveraged to release of a person from jail, typically with a cash bond and a promise to show up for court. 

In December 2021, Pima County Attorney Laura Conover announced that, in part to reduce the jail population because of concerns around COVID-19, her office would stop prosecuting some low-level drug offenses.

Explaining the impetus behind the program, Conover cited “non-violent sick people who should not be in jail at all and are at risk for violence, illness and overdose.”

She added that there are a number of programs in the county to help address issues with addiction and minor offenses that can address those issues outside of jail. 

After only about four months, however, the jail population had held steady and Conover scrapped the effort. 

“The jail’s population was 1,671 on the day the policy went into place, and 1,673 on March 9,” Conover wrote in the memo. She said that law enforcement personnel were still bringing people to the jail for the charges she had announced she would no longer prosecute, resulting in the policy having little effect on the inmate population.

“The question wasn’t whether I prosecute over possession or I don’t. The question in reality, was whether I’m offering treatment or not,” Conover told Arizona Luminaria. She said that the only way to get someone into the STEPS program, which is meant to divert people away from the criminal justice system and into a drug treatment or mental healthcare program, was by arresting them. 

Asked if the only tool she had to work with was arrests, Conover said, “Yes. That is correct.”

Who is being held in the jail

Data on Pima County’s jail population between 2011-2014, collected by the MacArthur Foundation as they began working with Pima County for the Safety and Justice Challenge program, offers a window into who was being held in the jail. 

  • More than 80% of people detained were being held while awaiting trial. 
  • Most of those held inside, according to 2014 data, were detained for failures to appear in court (93% of which related to underlying misdemeanor charges); misdemeanor charges such shoplifting and DUIs; or lower-level felony charges, such as possession/use of a drug.
  • The 2014 data also showed that people of color were over-incarcerated — 9.6% of Black people were being held pretrial, while they only made up 3.3% of the county’s total population. 
  • In 2020, that trend has gotten worse. According to numbers from Vera Project, in 2020, Black inmates made up 14% of the jail population and only 4% of the county’s total population.
  • In 2014, 40.7% of Hispanic people were being held pretrial, while they made up only 35% of the county’s total population.
  • In 2020, Hispanic people made up 46% of the jail population and only 40% of the county’s total population.
  • Native Americans represented 6.75% of the pretrial population, while they made up 2.4% of the county’s total population.
  • In 2020, Native Americans made up 5% of the jail population and only 2% of the county’s total population.
  • 8% of Native Americans were held in jail on failure to appear charges.

Chris Magnus, the former Tucson police chief and, until recently, the commissioner of customs and border protection, told Arizona Luminaria that part of the problem is law enforcement agencies’ approach to policing. 

“I think police departments really have to do more to train their officers,” said Magnus, who is currently the senior advisor for public safety at New York University’s Policing Project

Magnus said that both sheriff and police departments need to train officers “to use tools other than arrest whenever possible, and to see that as a success which is recognized and even rewarded as a good approach to policing.”

Another post-incarceration partial-solution taking place in Tucson is the jail population review program, during which, every week, county officials meet to assess who has been arrested and to flag people who were brought in on minor charges that could be released. 

While a population review program does get people out of jail sooner, Erin George, National Policy Director of The Bail Project, said a third of sexual assaults people experience in jail happen in the first 24 hours people are detained, and 40% of jail deaths occur in the first week of detention.

The jail review assessment, as well as other jail diversion programs were implemented in Pima County beginning in 2015, through a multimillion dollar grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge program. The series of reforms meant to lower the jail population have found some success. The Safety and Justice Challenge website cites an 8% reduction in jail population since 2016.

With a current average daily population hovering around 1,800, the population drop from when the MacArthur Foundation began supporting Pima County’s efforts to keep people out of jail — when there were 1,879 people in the jail — until today, is less than a 5% reduction.

A 2022 assessment of the MacArthur foundation found that over a two-year period Pima County deflected 6,545 individuals out of jail and into treatment programs. Bria Gillum, MacArthur’s program officer for Pima County, said, “I would say overall, we’ve seen a lot of success in safely reducing jail populations.”

“I want to reemphasize and reinforce that this work really does take collaboration and a variety of partners,” Gillum added. “If you have more of a piecemeal approach to this work, then you’re not going to have the success that you need. Public safety is a community issue, and it really does require the community.”

But the reduction in population, prompted in part by the Safety and Justice Challenge program, has not solved the problem of deaths in jail. In the six year period from 2009 to 2014, the year before the county joined the Safety and Justice Challenge program, there were a total of 7 deaths in Pima County Jail. In the last six years, from 2017 through the end of 2022, there were 49 deaths in the jail. (Only three of those were attributed to Covid.)

Currently, the daily population in the jail hovers around 1,800.

And county officials have taken turns effectively passing the buck about what’s gone wrong. 

Nanos told KGUN9 last October, “The sheriff doesn’t get to say who stays in jail, who goes to jail, that’s our courts.” 

And Conover said, the same month, “As a matter of clarification, I note that the Pima County Attorney’s Office is not the office with oversight of the Pima County jail.” 

Conover added, “Deaths can occur inside the Pima County jail due to illness, overdose, and suicide and therefore are not criminal matters in which our office is involved.”

No Jail Deaths, an organization formed by locals whose loved ones have died in the jail, as well as supporters and activists, shared a collective statement: “This is an ongoing crisis in Pima County and those in power refuse to pay attention and take action. Over the past 25 months there have been 22 deaths, mostly people of color and many with disabilities.” 

The statement continues, “This crisis has demonstrated that the Sheriff’s Department, the Pima County Attorney’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, and the City of Tucson is complicit in violating the civil rights and civil liberties of our community members (while protecting those officers who kill us). We are demanding an immediate national response, including a federal investigation into conditions in the jail. We will not sit quietly while our loved ones and friends die.”

Cruz Patino Jr’s mother Frances Guzman, left, and stepfather Allan Monge lead a protest demanding justice for inmates who died while in custody at the Pima County Jail during a march in downtown Tucson on Aug. 27, 2022. The protest was organized by No Jail Deaths. Credit: Michael McKisson

Besides addressing the alleged toxic culture in the jail, experts claim that a dramatic reduction in population, as well as other support programs, is key to saving lives. 

“There are so many structural inequities within the criminal legal system that fixing or addressing one or two here or there is not going to create massive systemic change or massive impact on the folks who are most harmed,” says Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of the Greater Justice New York program for Vera. 

Bail reform, however, Harris-Calvin and others say, must be part of the equation. 

George, of The Bail Project, put it simply: “Bail reform can save lives.”

Promises and challenges of bail reform

It’s a topic that’s been proposed and bandied around in Pima County, as well as throughout Arizona, for a long time. Little progress has been made. 

In January 2022, Pima County’s Board of Supervisors voted to back an amendment to the state constitution to end cash bail, but the state legislature didn’t pass the measure. Conover has also drafted legislation for bail reform, but after a state constitutional amendment was proposed, the legislative approach was scrapped. 

Conover shared a draft with Arizona Luminaria, which proposes that all people arrested get an initial hearing within 24 hours and then are released on “non-financial conditions.” Exceptions include keeping people in jail who are deemed to pose a risk to the community. 

“At his appearance before a judicial officer, any person who is charged with a public offense that is bailable as a matter of right shall be ordered released pending trial on his own recognizance,” the draft reads, followed by 15 different factors to be considered before initial release.

As the conversation around bail reform in Pima County languishes behind officials’ closed doors, it may be helpful to look at how other counties and states have taken on the task. 

New York State passed a law to reform the bail system in 2019, and while it’s been amended since, and cash bail is still in use in the state, Harris-Calvin, from Vera, told Arizona Luminaria, “Our jail populations shrank really significantly. So I think that’s one takeaway if you want to prevent large swaths of your population who are usually black and brown and poor folks from being incarcerated while they’re legally innocent simply because they are too poor to pay, then ending cash bail is the way to do that.” 

In July 2020, mere months after the new bail law went into effect, the jail population in New York had dropped by 46%, according to a recent report from Vera. After two rounds of rollbacks to the law, however, as of October 2022 the jail population has increased again, surpassing the population in January 2020.

In that short window of almost completely ending cash bail, researchers were able to spot trends, and they concluded that many of the fears people held — that crime would go up or that people wouldn’t show up to court — were unfounded. The rearrest rate for people released pretrial went from 19% in 2019 to 20% in 2021.

And missed court dates actually decreased. In New York City, the failure-to-appear rate decreased from 15% in 2019 to just 9% in 2021. Elsewhere in the state, the failure-to-appear rate held steady.

Texas’ Harris County, the third most populous county in the country, and home to Houston, saw even more dramatic results after implementing bail reform. A study from Quattrone found that after the county mostly eliminated cash bail for some misdemeanors, they saw overall positive effects both for the community and the individuals who were released from custody.

Highlights from Harris County include: 

  • A 6% decrease in new prosecutions in the following three years for people who were discharged without a bond after their initial arrest. Statistics show that people who spend time in jail have a higher recidivism rate. (Recidivism is when someone convicted of a crime commits a new offense.) In Harris County, bail reform helped drive a decrease in recidivism.
  • A 15% drop in guilty pleas, indicating fewer innocent people were serving time for crimes they didn’t commit.
  • A 15% average reduction in sentence length.

But despite the pointed successes seen in Harris County, last year there were on average just under 10,000 people locked into the jails, with around 8,000 of them pretrial detainees. And 2022 saw the county’s highest in-custody death rate in decades, with 27 deaths. 

According to Rahman, from Vera, “Part of the problem with Harris County is they did bail reform without thinking holistically about what the system needs and how do we make sure that we really think about each part of it and how is it working with each other and how do we front public safety first?”

A comprehensive look at the repercussions of bail reform highlight that while dangerous jail conditions may not be solved, there are clear benefits. 

A 2020 analysis from Prison Policy Initiative found that in four states and nine counties that had adopted pretrial reforms, including bail reform, “all but one of these jurisdictions saw decreases or negligible increases in crime.” The single exception was New York City, which rolled back the reforms just months after implementing them.

In 2017, New Jersey all but eliminated cash bail, the overall jail population declined in the state by 45%, and the state quickly saw a significant decrease in violent crime. In Santa Clara County, in California, after implementing bail reform in 2012, the number of people released without bail increased by 45%, and 99% of them were not rearrested.

“Evidence is really critical,” Fathi, from ACLU, said. “And there is no evidence that incarceration rates have any relationship with crime rates or public safety.”

“Incarceration” Fathi continued, “is the most expensive intervention and probably the least effective if what you’re really concerned about is public safety and reducing lawbreaking and antisocial behavior.”

That’s one reason that, since 2018, the Bail Project has helped release 23,745 people from jail. The organization, operating in more than 30 cities across the country, including Phoenix, focuses on “investing in solutions,” by bailing people out, helping them make sure they get to court, and connecting them with a raft of different services. Since 2018, they calculate that they’ve reduced total incarceration by 1,000,000 days. Over that time, 92% of court dates were still met, which means that the bail money was returned and they were able to use it on bailing out the next person.   

Protestors gather outside the Pima County jail demanding justice for their loved ones who died while in custody on Oct. 16, 2022. Credit: John Washington

Jail’s hidden human costs

“Even one night in pretrial incarceration” — jail — “can be devastating for individuals,” Erin George told Arizona Luminaria. “They can lose their jobs, their homes, their health.”  

They can also lose their lives. “I think it’s very fair to say that cash bail is a driver of the crisis of death in jails,” George said.

A 2013 study from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation of over 150,000 cases of jail inmates in Kentucky, found that detaining people, even for only a few days, “is strongly correlated with higher rates of new criminal activity both ​​during the pretrial period and years after case disposition.” As length of time spent in the jail increases up to 30 days, “recidivism rates for low- and moderate-risk defendants also increases significantly.”

The study also found that when held only 2-3 days, “low-risk defendants” are nearly 40% more likely to commit new crimes before trial than people held no more than 24 hours. This poses a particular problem for Pima County, where even accessing some drug treatment programs requires an arrest — which typically means a night or more in jail.

That same Kentucky-focused study was updated in 2022, looking at over 1.5 million cases, and found similar results: “Pretrial detention — for any length of time — is associated with a higher likelihood of arrest for a new crime” and “pretrial detention is associated with an increased likelihood of being convicted and receiving a longer sentence compared to those who were released pretrial.”

Another study published in 2023 concluded that “reducing pretrial detention and eliminating money considerations from decisions about detention have had minimal negative effects on public safety.” The study concluded that if the adverse effects of pretrial detention are taken into consideration — including, losing employment, housing, and custody of children “bail reforms may, on balance, improve the well-being of communities most impacted by crime.”

Tompkins County, which includes the city of Ithaca in upstate New York, has tried a number of measures to try to reduce the jail population there. David Sanders, executive director of Opportunities Alternatives, and Resources, a multi-pronged advocacy organization, stressed that there’s not any magic bullet, but a comprehensive reform package that includes diverse stakeholders is essential. The ultimate goal is not just reducing the jail population, but reconceiving and establishing standards of public safety. 

Among other reforms, Sanders stressed a focus on education and mental health support in communities.

While Tompkins County is significantly smaller than Pima County, it could be looked to as something of a pilot project to be emulated elsewhere, including larger jurisdictions.

Opportunities Alternatives, and Resources offers a host of resources to their community members who frequent the jail, ranging from direct aid (food, sleeping bags, clothes) to employment and education assistance, housing, reentry help, drug treatment services, and laundry. 

Sanders said the jail population decreased significantly, as did recidivism in the past five years. Meanwhile, many formerly detained people successfully completed education programs, and over half of those who did went on to enroll in college. 

According to an annual report from Criminal Justice/Alternatives to Incarceration, a board that supervises Tompkins County’s alternatives to incarceration plan, over the last five years the crime index (the number of reported crimes), arrest rate, and jail population have all plummeted, 28%, 28%, and 33%, respectively.

Judges, too, are a key component of the equation. While police or sheriff’s officers make the arrests, the county attorney decides whether or not to prosecute, judges do the sentencing, and they are the ones who choose to keep people in the jail. Some people sentenced to less than a year serve their time not in state prisons, but county jails.

In 2019 in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, after a series of deaths in the local jail, Judge Michael Nelson decided to both speak out about the problem and stop setting cash bonds for certain misdemeanors

Considering judges’ role in sending and keeping people in jail, Conover, the Pima County attorney general, recently said: “The bench’s continued reliance on low cash bail is flawed.” Referring to the deaths, she added, “the consequences are obvious.”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 1 of this year, Illinois became the first state to completely eliminate cash bail, though still allowing judges to detain people they deem a threat to the community.

A screenshot from the GoFundMe page for Yunan Tutu taken on Jan. 26, 2022.

Looking for dignity

Overall, as Vera’s Rahman told Arizona Luminaria, jails should be run in such a way that “the operating principle is human dignity.” 

That goes for both inmates and guards. Another Vera study found that guards have significantly higher levels of depression, PTSD, as well as higher suicide rates. They also have a significantly shorter life expectancy.

Magnus said that to affect real change it’s critical to “have people in leadership positions that are going to do more than throw rhetoric out there and just use the term” — wraparound services, which he called a buzzword — “over and over. You have to find ways to bring service providers together in a meaningful way.” 

In other words, you have to  build a robust and healthy community — where people are housed, employed, and have access to mental health and social services — outside of a carceral framework.

Until jails are shuttered or begin to operate on the principle of dignity, criminal justice experts say little will change. 

Three days after Yunan died in jail, his family created a GoFundMe page to help cover funeral costs. A photo of Yunan shows him smiling in front of treadmills in a gym. “Yunan was a nice guy who always laughed and smiled with people,” his little sister, Toma, wrote. 

She described her brother as “a funny and lovely person who always wanted to help people.” 

After six months spent in Pima jail, he was dead.

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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...