Pima County is preparing for an increase in the population of the jail of about 10% to 20%. 

The estimated spike in jail population is expected over the next several years, according to India Davis, a former corrections chief at Pima County Adult Detention Center and a member of a new commission studying the idea of building a new jail. 

Davis calculated the estimated increase by looking at the upward trend of bookings into the jail in the past decades. Bookings significantly increased in the first three months of 2023 compared to the first three months of 2022, Davis said at the commission meeting on Thursday, April 13.

Bookings differ from the population at the jail because the total number of bookings doesn’t accurately portray the number of hours a person spends in jail. Some spend only a couple of hours, some spend months or years.

Pima County has spent years trying to reduce the jail population, obtaining and spending millions of dollars of grant money to try to keep the population down and divert people to drug programs. The population of people incarcerated, however, has been hovering at about 1,800 for the past few years. 

As the population has held steady, the number of people dying in the Pima County jail has risen sharply, making the detention facility one of the deadliest and most dangerous in the United States.

In 2022, Pima County jail had 12 deaths — one of the highest per capita jail mortality rates in the country

In December 2022, citing a “full-blown crisis” in the jail, Sheriff Chris Nanos asked the county Board of Supervisors for a raise for correctional officers, which the supervisors granted, as well as a new sales tax to build a new jail. 

None of the deaths in 2022 had any direct connection to the poor infrastructure of the jail. Most of the deaths were related to overdoses or suicide. 

On Jan. 24, County Manager Jan Lesher proposed the formation of the Pima County Adult Detention Facility Blue Ribbon Commission to study the necessity and feasibility of building a new jail. The commission meetings are open to the public.

Initial cost estimates, cited by Lesher, run from $250 million to $380 million. 

The commission consists of 10 members:

  • Former Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp, who is the chair
  • David Ollanik, from Sundt Construction
  • India Davis, the former corrections chief
  • Frank Hecht, former corrections captain
  • Paul Wilson, former Pima County Sheriff’s Department bureau chief
  • Jack O’Brien, an attorney in the Public Defender’s Office
  • Wendy Petersen, former Pima County Justice Services director
  • Grady Scott, a pastor with Grace Temple and Missionary Baptist Church
  • Chris Sheafe, member of the Rio Nuevo board
  • Roberto Villaseñor, who has not yet attended the meetings, and is a former Tucson police chief.

The commission’s original charter, set for six months but with the possibility of an extension, is to assess the need for a new jail, or improvements to the current jail, as well as consider funding options. There are currently three working groups: finance, operations and facilities. 

At the first commission meeting on March 17, Nanos made an appeal to model the jail around direct supervision, an architectural jail concept that opts against keeping small groups of inmates behind closed doors. Instead, direct supervision involves using a more open floor plan in which at least some guards are always in the same room as the inmates. 

The current jail was built in 1984, and followed the plan of direct supervision, but remodeling and added buildings, as well as changes in the jail population skewed it away from the direct supervision model. 

As Lesher noted in her Jan. 24 memo, “Rather than simply repairing or rebuilding the current facility, which may be needed to respond to issues that may result from age of facility and deferred maintenance, this could be an opportunity for Pima County to develop a more modern jail or detention facility in which case the term ‘new’ describes enhanced programming and/or operational efficiencies.”

But direct supervision may remain a challenge as, according to Davis, 40% of the people incarcerated in the jail are high or maximum security inmates. That means, according to current policies, they need some form of administrative segregation, which involves various degrees of isolation. 

Davis also said that there is “a lot of single cell population right now,” or confining about 9% of the approximately 1,800 inmates in cells by themselves. 

All of which seems to present a challenge to using the direct supervision model. Frank Hecht described the concept, in his April 13 presentation to the commission, as a “management tool in which CO is in constant contact with the inmate.”

“If you see a theme here, it’s all about the correctional officers,” Hecht said. “Pima County needs to build a facility that is safe and functional.”

In facilities that are dysfunctional, he said, “you see escapes, suicides and assaults.”

The dysfunction of the current jail building was highlighted at the first commission meeting by Nanos, who gave a presentation to members showing photos of crumbling, leaking infrastructure, mold and wet floors. 

The commission members all recently toured the jail. “What you saw was a warehouse,” Hecht said to the committee members.

Azteca Bail Bonds, located directly across from the Pima County Adult Detention Center in Tucson, in a photo taken Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Credit: Michael McKisson

Much of the discussion on April 13 focused less on infrastructure and more on theories of jail architecture, as well as who is currently in jail and why.

“We have cells that are there for poor people,” said Jack O’Brien, referring to people who are booked into the jail and remain there waiting for their trials because they can’t afford to pay for bond.

Both O’Brien and Grady Scott asked how many current inmates are held on bond amounts of $2,500 or less. Davis said that the sheriff’s department doesn’t track bond amounts.

“Are we locking up poor people? If we’re going to build another facility, we have to take that into account,” Scott said.

O’Brien also asked how much a new jail would help if the sheriff’s department can’t fully staff it.

Sheriff’s department Captain Scott Lowing, who is not a commission member but who has attended both meetings, said that the recently approved pay raise to guards has helped draw more recruits into the training academy.

Hecht frequently mentioned the need for “competent staff.” He also underscored the importance of “clear policies and procedures,” as well “clear communication” between staff working at the jail and between staff and inmates. 

Chris Sheafe, however, drew the commission back to the charter: “we need to begin with the end in mind,” he said, suggesting they focus more on the facility.

After almost two hours of discussion, the commission adjourned for the month. The working groups will continue their studies separately until the next public meeting.  

Meanwhile, though two months and two meetings have already gone by, as of early Thursday, April 13, the same day as the second meeting, the county has yet to post information about the commission meetings for the public to view on the government website. An official with the county said that the commission’s website could be ready as soon as next week.

Commission members hope to inform the public of their work, show their agendas and offer other documents and information, as well as let the public comment. They may also conduct a public survey.

It is unclear what the broader public’s opinion might be in offering up an increased sales tax to fund a new jail that could cost nearly $400 million, but at the first meeting, two protesters held signs.

One of them read: “It’s not just the building, it’s the culture too.”

“We need to work on the system and not just in it,” Hecht said. Besides focusing on direct supervision, it remains to be seen how the commission will propose to work on changing the system.

At one point in his presentation, Hecht recounted that years ago, when he used to run the Pima County jail, he brought his mother in for a tour. Besides wanting to show her where he worked, he wanted to send a message to the inmates: He was in control, and that the jail was safe.

After pausing to think for a moment, he said, “I’d still probably feel okay,” bringing her into the jail for a tour today.

Today, civil rights advocates and family members are asking for more than a new jail.

They want people in charge at Pima County jail — and those who have the power to hold government officials accountable — to stop the deaths and abuse of people inside. Most of the people who are living and dying in the jail are pre-trial detainees, meaning that they have not been convicted of any crimes.

As Arizona Luminaria continues to investigate the deadly conditions inside Pima County jail, please reach out to reporter John Washington, jwashington@azluminaria.org, for information and tips.

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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...