Tucson City Council members have joined a growing community movement that wants answers from county officials about why people are dying while detained at the Pima County jail. 

The council discussed an array of questions they want addressed, including whether jail is the right place for people in a medical crisis to detox from addictions to drugs like fentanyl.

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.

The city council voted unanimously at a study session on Tuesday, May 2, to ask county leaders for information about “the intake and care of detainees at the jail, including any information relating to recent inmate deaths.”

“I want to make sure that when we are putting people at the Pima County jail that we’re not sending our city residents to die at the facility,” council member Lane Santa Cruz said.

Many people who are detained at the jail haven’t been to trial, and many can’t afford to make bail, “so they’re stuck there,” she said.

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.

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“I think we have a responsibility to look into why these deaths are happening,” said Santa Cruz, who represents residents of Ward 1, where the jail is located.

She provided a list of questions for Lesher and Sheriff Chris Nanos to answer, including how the jail meets the needs of people who need to medically detox, how many people who died in jail were arrested by the Tucson Police Department, and whether the county is conducting review boards when someone dies in detention.

Council leaders had stayed out of the issue until now. It’s fair to ask questions, Mayor Regina Romero said, because while the city doesn’t operate the jail, it is one of the biggest users of the facility. 

The council is a public and financial stakeholder in discussions about the conditions and crisis at the jail, contracting with the county and funding the budget for Tucson’s Police Department, which makes the bulk of arrests in Pima County.

The mayor said she would like to see a report with answers to Santa Cruz’s questions. She also wants to hear directly from Lesher and Nanos “so we can find solutions together.”

She invited county officials to come to a future public meeting to discuss jail processes, staffing levels, services at the jail, medical care, and the prevention of suicide and overdose deaths.

Tucson City Council Member Lane Santa Cruz asks questions about the Pima County jail at a city council study session on May 2, 2023. Credit: Becky Pallack

“Everybody keeps passing the buck, and who’s responsible for which part?” Santa Cruz said in an interview with Arizona Luminaria after the meeting Tuesday. “I think the part that the city can at least start to look into is, when we’re contracting with the jail to jail city residents, what is then the responsibility — or what is the expectation — that we have of their care while they’re in custody?”

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

Watch the May 2 council study session discussion here.

One of the most critical issues is helping people who need medical care during a crucial detox period, said council member Paul Cunningham. His career includes 12 years as a juvenile probation officer.

“For whatever reason, we don’t really have a secure facility where they can detox safely, they can get suboxone, methadone, whatever they’re supposed to get,” he said. 

“It’s killing us,” Cunningham said. “Literally killing us.”

The next most important part of the issue is security at the jail facility and how drugs are getting in, Cunningham said in an interview after the meeting. 

Having enough space for detox is a critical issue, said Santa Cruz, whose own brother died from a fentanyl overdose in 2016.

At an Arizona Luminaria public panel discussion in April, Frances Guzman spoke about how her son, Cruz Patino Jr., died inside the Pima County jail. She thought he might recover and turn his life around after going to jail.

“I thought this would save him,” she said, holding back tears. Her son was 22 when he died.

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

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

Guzman’s comments at the panel inspired Santa Cruz to act. 

People listening to speakers at the Arizona Luminaria panel discussion about the conditions and crisis at Pima County jail. Credit: Michael McKisson

“We have Latino moms who are OK with their kids going into custody, thinking that’s going to be the wake-up call that they need to get sober or clean, and that it ends up in a tragedy,” Santa Cruz said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting.

“When we talk about the role of police, we expect that the judicial-criminal system is going to address these societal issues that we’re having, especially when it comes to addiction, and they’re not equipped for that,” she said. “So we need to start thinking about what alternatives or what other services do we need to have in place that address that.”

The city shouldn’t talk about cracking down on fentanyl without providing ways for people to get clean and sober, she added.

Who is being held in 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.

Cunningham spoke about the deadly disparities at Pima County jail.

“In 2022, Rikers Island in New York City had 19 deaths,” he said. “Pima County jail, which serves 1 million people, had 12 deaths. We also had three already this year.”

“When the statistics are that far out of whack, we’ve got a problem,” he added.

The population of Rikers Island jail hovers at slightly below 6,000. The population of Pima County jail is about 1,800.

The city has been “getting jammed on jail board” for many years, he said, and has even thought about transporting inmates to the Santa Cruz County jail or building its own Tucson jail.

Cunningham’s sentiments on what he would say to the Pima County Board of Supervisors echoed those of his council colleagues: “How can we help?”

One of the solutions he offered is having the city help manage a safe medical detox program, where people can go to come down or get off of drugs.

The mayor said she’s been meeting with Adelita Grijalva, the chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors; County Attorney Laura Conover; and the city manager joins her at meetings with Lesher. The discussions help them think holistically about major issues in the region and learn “how to work together for the benefit of our residents.” 

And what’s happening at Pima County jail is a huge issue, Romero said.

“Tucsonans ask about it, and we all have questions about it,” she said. “It’s an issue of humans and human suffering and detainment. But it’s also an issue of the city of Tucson investing a lot of money in putting people there.”

The mayor agreed that “detox is one of the biggest issues,” adding that Pima County is working on detox solutions and discussing the expansion of a facility that is more appropriate for detox, and that is not the jail.”

The deaths at the jail are a community problem, Romero said in an interview after the meeting: “We’ve got to know exactly what is happening.”

The next step is a public conversation with county leaders, she said.

“We should be working on this together,” Romero said.

Read more stories from Arizona Luminaria about the jail. As 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.


Visuals: Becky Pallack and Michael McKisson Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson

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