A Pima County committee closed a public meeting about the jail after four minutes on Thursday, Aug. 10, saying they couldn’t hold a productive meeting because members of the public were shouting and playing a tuba, saxophone and a drum.

It was the first time the Pima County Adult Detention Center Blue Ribbon Commission had provided an opportunity for the public to comment since its first meeting in March. The group’s mission is to determine whether to build a new jail.

People can still submit comments about the jail by emailing BlueRibbonCommissionFeedback@pima.gov 

The meeting, which was held in person and streamed online, started around 9:30 a.m. Some of the people entering the meeting room were playing music. A couple of the committee members were bobbing their heads and smiling, but then the meeting was abruptly adjourned at 9:34 a.m.

As some committee members got up to leave, others asked where they were going and whether the meeting was changing location. Committee members left the building and walked toward the parking lot. Some people were following them and there were multiple standoffs.

Committee member Paul Wilson told Arizona Luminaria, “It’s hard for us to conduct business with this disrespect. This is not a way for them to have their concerns heard.”

Stephanie Madero-Piña, a member of No Jail Deaths whose husband and nephew died in the jail, spoke at a press conference before the meeting. As commission members filed out, she yelled, “These are my family members you’re walking away from.” On a large poster behind her were photos of her husband and son. “You turn your back on us? Fine. We’ll speak for you, dammit.”

Stephanie Madero-Piña, whose husband and nephew both died in the jail, shouts at a committee member who left following the abrupt adjournment of the final Blue Ribbon Jail Commission on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

In the room abandoned by the commission members, people took over the tables and podium and began discussing the jail. 

Diana Durazo, staff senior advisor to the commission, told Arizona Luminaria that the meeting was adjourned. She couldn’t say whether or not it would be rescheduled. 

“I don’t know if we can have another meeting like this,” she said. “Nobody could hear anything.”

Later on Thursday, the commission’s chairman, Danny Sharp, said in a statement it was clear to him that the noise and disruption were not going to die down so he decided to adjourn the meeting.

“I became concerned for the safety of the commissioners and the members of the public and didn’t want the situation to escalate further, therefore I believed it was best for all to send the commissioners home and seek another day to complete the commission’s important work,” Sharp said.

Tracy Howe, a reverend with United Church of Christ, speaks to protestors occupying the seats of Blue Ribbon Committee members after the meeting was adjourned. Credit: Michael McKisson

In 2022, Pima County jail had 12 deaths — one of the highest per capita jail mortality rates in the country. The jail was built in 1984 and has numerous facilities problems. So far, in 2023, 13 people have died either in custody or shortly after being released.

Rosanne Inzunza, whose son Sylvestre died of an overdose in the jail in 2022 when he was 18, spoke at the press conference before the meeting.

“Instead of helping they just left him there,” she said, pointing a finger at failures of guards and medical staff in the jail to properly care for her son. Rosanne’s daughter Mariah Inzunza is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Pima County, Sheriff Chris Nanos, NaphCare — the for-profit Alabama-based company hired to run healthcare in the jail — and four jail guards.

Rosanne Inzunza, the mother of Sylvestre Inzunza, who died in the jail in 2022, speaks at a protest before the final Blue Ribbon Jail Commission meeting was abruptly adjourned on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

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The lawsuit alleges that jail officials charged with caring for incarcerated people at the jail were “deliberately indifferent” and “grossly negligent” of the risks that Sylvestre faced because of his drug use. 

“Please, we don’t need a new jail,” Rosanne said. “Let’s use that money for medical care, for more staff. A new jail isn’t going to fix the problem.”

Since January, a county-appointed Blue Ribbon Commission has been meeting to analyze the necessity and feasibility of building a new jail, which is about 40 years old. Initial cost estimations are as high as $400 million. According to projections from the commission, the jail population could increase from about 1,900 now to about 2,750 inmates by 2024, a 50% increase from today.

The commission has yet to finalize a proposal or present anything to the board of supervisors, but is expected to do so in September. The supervisors will then get a chance to vote, either sending a proposed sales tax to Pima County residents or not.

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. 

Tiera Rainey speaks at a protest before the final Blue Ribbon Jail Commission meeting was abruptly adjourned on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Tiera Rainey, director of the Tucson Bail Fund, spoke at the press conference before the meeting. 

“I don’t know about you, but I’m in a state of shock we have to be here,” she said. “It’s so obvious we don’t want a new jail. The only viable solution is not the county pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a new facility. I challenge the presumption that our collective futures have to be so limited. It’s not even a band-aid. A new jail will fix nothing for Tucson.”

“We will not stand idly by and let you build new cages for our community,” Rainey said.

One person in the room at Thursday’s meeting held a poster that read: “$400 million toward a new jail?? How about community?”

Mia Burcham, an organizer with No Jail Deaths, asked at the press conference before the meeting, “Why are we continuing to push money into a facility killing our community members.”

Sheriff Chris Nanos has said he is eager for the commission to determine whether there is a need for a new jail. At recent county meetings, community members have repeatedly expressed their fierce resistance to spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new jail.

Burcham noted that many of the pressing questions about the jail, including the treatment of people held there or why people are continuing to die, are “outside the scope of the commission.” 

As the meeting continued without the commission members, it turned into something of a planning session. People said that they would continue to push. “There’s going to be another meeting, right? And we’ll be there. We’ll continue to raise hell.”

Police officers remained outside, but the meeting was peaceful, with people snapping their fingers in support as others shared their experience in the jail, questioned what else the county could do with $400 million. They questioned the legitimacy of the commission, given that the first meetings weren’t publicly announced and they only opened for public comment for the commission’s last meeting. 

No Jail Deaths and individuals opposed to building a new jail have been increasing pressure on public officials. Members attended the last Blue Ribbon Commission meeting on July 27.

No Jail Deaths also held a community forum on August 6. Three panelists spoke at the Aug. 6 event, including Madero-Piña, Kat Jutras, the advocacy director for Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, and Jared Keenan, the legal director of ACLU Arizona. 

Jutras called for ongoing and increased community pressure to not only stop a new jail from being built, but bring transparency and accountability to the management of the current jail. 

“Public pressure does work,” Jutras said. “Make their life hell if they’re going to try to do these things.”

On Aug. 10, one person, Ary LaVizzo, who had occupied one of the seats left vacant by the fleeing commission members, said, “The space wouldn’t be like this if we didn’t do this. This is how the community decided to show up.”

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of Rosanne Inzunza. Rosanne is the accurate spelling.

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.

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