Before the community panel started, mothers and loved ones set up posters with photos and news stories about people who have died at the Pima County jail. They wanted everyone to see their faces and learn more about their life and how they died while in the care of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

One man in huarache sandals and gray trousers, knelt low before the posters, reading up close.

Criminal justice experts, the mother of a young man who died inside the Pima County jail, journalists and members of the public discussed the conditions and crises at the detention facility during Arizona Luminaria’s panel. They stressed what the community can do to help.

The April 19 panel included Jared Keenan, the senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona; Frances Guzman, the mother of Cruz Patino Jr., who died inside the jail; and Luminaria reporter John Washington. Luminaria executive editor and co-founder Dianna Náñez moderated the discussion.

An attendee of Arizona Luminaria’s community event about issues at the Pima County jail looks at a poster brought by Frances Guzman, the mother of Cruz Patino Jr. who died in the jail. Credit: Michael McKisson

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos also was planning to attend until a few days before the event when he canceled, citing advice from the Pima County Attorney’s Office regarding ongoing lawsuits.

Here are five takeaways from the panel discussion. 

1. It’s hard to find facts, even basic ones

Since 2017, at least 53 people have died in the jail. County Administrator Jan Lesher cited statistics for many of these deaths in a December 2022 memo

Data on deaths at Pima County jail

  • In 2021, the year Sheriff Chris Nanos took office for the second time, 10 people died in the jail. That’s more than three times the national rate as of 2019, the last year for which national statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics are available. 
  • The overwhelming majority of jails in the United States don’t have any deaths in a given year, or, at most, one or two. With an average annual death rate of nearly 10 a year, critics say there is something seriously wrong at the Pima County jail. 
  • In 2022, at least 12 people died in the jail.
  • The majority of the people who are living and dying in the jail are pre-trial detainees, meaning that they have not been convicted of a crime.

“There were 12 deaths last year, which is a per capita mortality rate well above the national average,” Washington said.

“Even that basic fact — of how many people died, of what the mortality rate is — it’s been difficult to have that conversation with the sheriff” and other county officials who dispute the facts, he said.

Washington recounted asking a Pima County official who oversees the medical care contract whether she was satisfied with the medical care at the jail. He got a single-word answer: Yes.

“As a journalist, you don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer,” so Washington pushed for more information but it wasn’t forthcoming.

He has turned to the community to figure out what’s happening. Over the course of reporting the latest story about widespread medical care neglect at the jail, Washington spoke with more than a dozen current or former inmates, as well as four former NaphCare employees and three former or current Pima County Sheriff’s Department correctional officers.

Frances Guzman, whose son Cruz Patino Jr. died in the Pima County jail, speaks during Arizona Luminaria’s community panel. Credit: Michael McKisson

2. People are suffering and grieving

The latest story in Luminaria’s series about deaths at the jail included an analysis of 111 medical grievances filed in one month by people detained. The records show people going weeks or months without prescription medications, medications to manage withdrawals, and even basic needs like toilet paper.

Frances Guzman shows the audience a poster with pictures of people who have died and clips of Arizona Luminaria articles. Credit: Michael McKisson

One grievance submitted on March 23, 2023 read: “I’m feeling like crap. tight chest, sharp shoulder pains. I have been on heart medication since I was 9 years old. I have had 2 heart attacks in the last 5 years, 5 in my life. Medical cut off my god dang heart medication with out seeing me to ask obvious questions or even take a blood pressure reading? I have sent at least 5 requests saying my medication is screwed up AGAIN and have got no answer, no call to medical, no nothing. I need my heart medication before I have another heart attack that would be 100% preventable had they listened to anyone of my requests and got me my medications.” Read full text here.

Guzman wore a black T-shirt with her son’s photo on the front. Her son, Cruz Patino Jr., was 22 years old when he died. 

He was into basketball. He was a ladies man. He was humble and caring, Guzman said about her son. She thought he might recover and turn his life around after going to jail. 

“I thought this would save him,” she said.

Several mothers of people who died at the jail met for the first time at the event. Others had been talking to each other for a while, bringing photos and posters, and one wore a protest jacket with red handprints and unanswered questions painted on it.

Guzman showed the audience a picture of a man’s beaten, cut and swollen face. The man, Justin Crook, died in the jail in May 2021 and his family is suing the county.

As Guzman spoke of her son, she started to cry. One woman, who also had a son who died in jail, rose from her seat in the middle of the audience and walked toward Guzman to offer a tissue and a hug.

Guzman hugged back, resting her head on the woman’s shoulder for a moment. She took a deep breath and kept talking about changes that are long overdue at the jail.

The mother of a person who died in the jail wore a painted protest jacket to the event April 19. Credit: Michael McKisson

3. People in jail have rights, but it’s hard to protect those rights

What are the rights of people who are in jail? The easy answer is: People in jail have rights and maintain most of their Constitutional rights in jail, Keenan said.

However, there are an increasing number of barriers to protecting those rights, he said. Courts and Congress are increasingly hostile to challenges. And suing jails and prisons is extremely difficult, time intensive and expensive, he said.

When you have a loved one in the jail, there’s really not much you can do except keep checking on them, Guzman said.

Keenan encouraged people to vote for elected officials who uphold the civil, constitutional and human rights of people inside detention and correctional facilities. Though, he added, that voting is only part of the necessary solutions. Activism, public discourse, legal advocacy and community pressure must be part of the strategy for correcting systemic wrongs and failures that harm people inside Arizona prisons and jails, he said.

Jared Keenan, the legal director of ACLU Arizona, speaks during a community event about issues at the Pima County jail while Executive Editor Dianna Náñez, the moderator of the event, looks on. Credit: Michael McKisson

4. Public pressure to improve conditions is growing, but public officials don’t seem to be working together yet

There are signs that public pressure is building and can lead to change, Náñez said. For example, the county supervisors originally wouldn’t comment for news stories about the jail, but now they are.

“The change that I want is policy change,” Guzman told the public.

It can be difficult to understand who is responsible for the problems because there are many connected issues, including homelessness and access to health care, Washington said. And that can lead officials to pass the buck. 

For example, County Attorney Laura Conover moved to stop prosecuting low-level drug offenses during the pandemic, Washington said. However, Conover told him the police and sheriff’s department continued to make arrests, so the program failed after a few months.

Who is being held in the jail?

  • More than 80% of people detained were being held while awaiting trial, according to data from 2011-2014, collected by the MacArthur Foundation.
  • According to 2014 data, most were detained for failures to appear in court; misdemeanor charges; or lower-level felony charges.
  • 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, according to 2014 data.
  • In 2020, that trend had gotten worse. According to the Vera Project, 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.

5. There are a lot of questions yet to answer, including what can be done to solve problems

“One of the things that I’ve learned, and this often happens when you dig deep on a story, is how much we still need to learn,” Washington said.

“One of the questions we wanted to ask the sheriff is: What are you doing about it? What are you doing to stop people from dying in the jail?” Washington said. “And I haven’t been able to get a clear answer on that.”

Speaker Frances Guzman tears up while speaking about her son who died in the Pima County jail. Credit: Michael McKisson

Another important question the community can ask is: “We’re locking up people who are struggling with addiction and mental health. Is the jail the best place to help them?”

Read more stories from Luminaria about the jail.

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

Becky Pallack

Becky Pallack is the Operations Executive at Arizona Luminaria. She's been a journalist in Arizona since 1999.