This story is supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office run by U.S. Senate candidate Sheriff Mark Lamb has spent at least $217,000 from a jail commissary fund that Arizona lawmakers mandated be used “for the benefit and welfare of inmates” to instead buy a cache of weapons, ammunition and ballistic vests.

The purchases violate state law, criminal justice experts say.

Arizona Luminaria reviewed expenses and revenues from the sheriff’s office inmate welfare fund over a five-year period. From July 2018 to July 2023, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spent just over $4 million for inmate services. At least $217,000 of that, or about 5.5%, was spent on guns, bullets and vests for the law enforcement agency, according to county budget documents obtained via a public records request.

Over the same five years, the county spent less than $900 on books for people detained in the jail.

The weapons and ballistic vests were purchased in 2022 and 2023. The ammunition was purchased between 2019 and 2021. Lamb began serving as Pinal County sheriff in January 2017.

Jared Keenan, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, criticized spending by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office under Lamb’s leadership. 

“It’s pretty clear he’s using these funds in a way that runs afoul of the statute,” Keenan told Arizona Luminaria. “The fund is for the benefit of inmates.”

Money raised by people who are incarcerated purchasing items from a jail commissary or canteen or paying for phone calls may be used “for the education and welfare of inmates,” according to the state statute.

Lamb boasts he’s running a law and order campaign as the Republican Senate candidate who will secure the border, defend the Second Amendment, support police and “cut wasteful spending,” according to his website. He often appears in campaign ads and at community appearances wearing tactical gear, and in one ad he’s walking through the desert carrying a rifle.

Lamb did not respond to detailed questions about his sheriff’s office spending on weapons from the fund intended to benefit incarcerated people.

Arizona Title 31 statutes

H. A special services fund is established in the office of the county treasurer. The sheriff shall deposit any canteen and charge-a-call telephone profits, if such become available, in the special services fund. All profits resulting from inmate services shall also be deposited in the special services fund. The board of supervisors may insure against the damage or loss of canteen materials, supplies and equipment that are owned by the county jail facility.

I. The sheriff shall hold in trust all special services fund monies for the benefit and welfare of inmates. These monies may be used for the education and welfare of inmates, including the establishment, maintenance and purchase of items for resale and other necessary expenses incurred in operating the canteens.

ACLU’s local branch has been key in lawsuits protecting the rights of people held in Arizona prisons and immigration detention centers.

Many people in Arizona jails are pre-trial detainees, meaning a court has not convicted them of any crimes. Some people sentenced to less than a year are in jail instead of prison.

Having programming and improving the basic conditions in a jail can help with recidivism rates, Keenan said. Services funded by profits from fees paid for commissary items and phone calls “can also make it less miserable” for people behind bars, he said.

The state legal statute regulating the fund, he added, helps “ensure that monies are used in a way they should be.”

Arizona counties use the terms “inmate services” and “inmate welfare” to describe the funds. Responding to a public records request by Arizona Luminaria, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office wrote “Inmate Welfare” at the top of the document listing expenditures, which included the weapons, ammunition and ballistic vests.

In jails across the state and nation, such funds typically go toward access to the internet, books, writing supplies, recreational equipment, and various educational programs for people behind bars.

Nowhere in an Arizona statute outlining a sheriff’s duties to “provide for prisoners” and manage commissaries, does the law state that money raised by people who are incarcerated should be used to buy guns and ammo.

A county board of supervisors or directors gets to decide if a sheriff may maintain a jail commissary or canteen. However, county sheriffs in Arizona get to decide what is sold in the commissary and set prices to maintain operations. Items for purchase often include hygiene supplies, snacks, phone cards and other provisions.

Though Pinal County’s fund is managed by Sheriff Lamb, state oversight – to ensure money paid by people who are incarcerated is spent legally – permits county boards of supervisors to authorize an audit every two years of commissary operations. Jail administrators must also prepare regular statements of operations. A copy of the audit report or statement must be posted at the commissary and in other areas where people who are incarcerated can review it.

Arizona Luminaria reached out to Pinal County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff Serdy by email on Sept. 25, asking if the board had audited the sheriff’s office use of funds within the last 10 years, and for an explanation as to how buying weapons complies with state law. Serdy responded saying that he did not know, suggesting two other county employees who may have more information. Neither responded.

Lauren Reimer, the sheriff’s office public information officer, responded on Sept. 22 to Arizona Luminaria’s questions about the fund.

Reimer said the sheriff’s office has “worked closely with our Finance and Procurement departments to make sure we follow all laws and rules as it relates to special revenues.” 

“We also ensure that our expenditure of inmate welfare monies are in line with those rules and laws,” she said.

Arizona Luminaria reached out to Pinal County’s Office of Budget and Finance, as well as the purchasing division, on Sept. 25 for more information about when the public officials have worked with the sheriff’s office to oversee the laws and rules mandating how money may be spent from the fund raised by people who are incarcerated. As of Sept. 28, county officials have not responded.

Conditions inside Pinal County jail have historically been so challenging that the jail was featured in a season of A&E’s reality show “60 Days In.” Season Five of the show, aired in 2019, focused on the Arizona jail’s problem with drugs, contraband and gangs, as well as the overall violent atmosphere.

Over the last decade, the jail in Pinal County — a growing rural region with nearly half a million residents nestled between Maricopa and Pima counties — has drawn civil rights complaints. One person formerly incarcerated there denounced the “inhumane and degrading treatment” of detainees, according to a 2011 American Civil Liberties Union report

Pinal County is no outlier when it comes to Arizona jails. Both Pima and Maricopa county jails are known for in-custody deaths, lack of medical care and degrading treatment, according to media reports and lawsuits over the years.

The conditions at Arizona jails are meant to be addressed, in part, by funds that benefit the welfare of people who are incarcerated, criminal justice experts say.

‘American Sheriff’

Lamb was the first Republican candidate to announce he’s running for Arizona’s Senate seat. In the primary, he’ll face former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who filed candidacy papers to join the race on Oct 4. Blake Masters, who ran for Senate against Mark Kelly last year, is also expected to run.

Whoever wins the Republican primary will square off against Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who announced his run in January 

They will all be vying for the seat of Kyrsten Sinema, who switched parties last year from Democrat to independent. Sinema has not yet announced if she will seek another term. 

Lamb has made the conservative concept of “law and order” the cornerstone of his Senate campaign. He’s proclaimed that God, guns, and freedom are his touchstone issues, and styles himself, in the vein of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, as an “American Sheriff” — also the title of Lamb’s self-published 2020 book

Like Arpaio, Lamb boasts of his crackdowns against drug traffickers and unauthorized immigration, frequently posting photos and videos of himself, usually heavily armed, in the desert or at the border. Pinal County is more than 50 miles from the border.

Following widespread local and national protests calling for justice for Black people after Minnesota police killed George Floyd in 2020, Lamb called for forming a citizen posse. “2020 has been quite the year,” Lamb said in a YouTube video posted on the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office channel.

Urging residents to train with officers “if we ever need the support,” Lamb promoted online classes to “learn the basics, so you can see the reality of police work,” and better grasp, among other law-enforcement issues — constitutional law, firearm safety and the “use of deadly force.”

A ‘regressive tax

Most of the money raised for the funds in Pinal and other Arizona counties comes from fees paid by incarcerated people and folks supporting them from outside as they purchase food and other items in the jail commissary and make expensive video or audio calls..

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department, over the last five years, has spent money from its fund on a variety of goods and services, including recreational equipment, clothing, and internet services for people who are incarcerated, according to a list of  expenditures available online, via the Arizona Financial Transparency Portal managed under state law by the General Accounting Office.

No records from the portal relating to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department point to any money from the inmate welfare fund being used on weapons or ammunition during the period from 2018 until 2023. 

A review of similar funds from that same period, showed that neither Maricopa nor Coconino counties spent money on weapons, according to financial records available online and obtained by Arizona Luminaria via a public records request. They did spend funds on clothing, books and food.  

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos told Arizona Luminaria on Sept. 27 that his department is “extremely cautious with these funds as they are clearly protected by statute.” Nanos added, “We use Inmate welfare for those things that directly helps the inmate, ie., tablets, movies, soda, popcorn, air conditioning to replace swamp coolers, etc.”

Officials with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond as of Sept. 28 to similar questions about whether the law-enforcement agency has used the fund to purchase guns and ammunition. 

Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson with the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan organization that studies prisons and jails, questioned the ethics of Pinal County’s spending.

“Obviously it’s wrong to be spending incarcerated people’s money this way,she said.

She called these types of funds a “regressive tax,” explaining that they “force incarcerated people and their families to shoulder almost the entire burden of cost.”

Bertram said that many people come into jail with addiction issues or mental health issues and are in need of vital services and programs. 

“Some of those people are in the throes of the worst days of their lives,” she said. “People need medical care, counselors, someone who can point them in the direction of services they can access once they’re out of jail.”

These services can save lives.

“I can’t tell you if that’s what the majority of inmate welfare funds go towards,” Bertram said. “I can tell you that those are programs that are needed.”

Arizona Luminaria reached out to the state attorney general’s office, the state Legislative Council, Sen. Denise “Mitzi” Epstein, D-Tempe, Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe; and Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, seeking clarification about the intent of the law and if using money from the funds to purchase weaponry is legal.

As of Sept. 28, none of the state representatives have responded.

Officials from the attorney general’s office suggested Arizona Luminaria reach out to the Legislative Council, legislators or the Department of Corrections, stating that Arizona’s top legal agency did not have any information on expenses allowed under the state law which regulates how sheriffs may use the funds.

Officials from the Legislative Council responded that the state agency also had no information. “I don’t think our office will be of any help on this inquiry. We don’t have any special working knowledge of the statute and are not able to offer any interpretation beyond the actual text of the measure,” executive director Michael Braun said in an email.

This is not the first time Lamb has come under scrutiny for his financial dealings. In 2020, the Arizona Republic reviewed expenses of a charitable organization that Lamb had founded, and uncovered multiple irregularities. 

In Lamb’s Senate campaign launch video he proclaimed, “It’s time for law and order.” 

Keenan said the law is exactly what Lamb is defying. 

“It’s hypocritical,” Keenan said. “People are in for violating statutes, and then their jailers violate statutes.”

A death in Pinal County

Mariah Guzman was 28 years old when she died on Oct. 30, 2022 in Pinal County jail. Mariah had been struggling with drug addiction, and was not feeling well when she was booked into the jail a few days earlier. 

Mariah Guzman on her birthday in 2018 showing off her new Air Jordan sneakers. Photo courtesy of her family.

Her mother, Adrianna Guzman, told Arizona Luminaria that she was put in the jail’s general population, but should have been taken to the infirmary. Within days, Mariah was dead. 

Adrianna doesn’t know many other details about her daughter’s death. She was in Tucson at the time, and was contacted by the Tucson Police Department, not the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. Adrianna says she hasn’t heard from officials with the sheriff’s office about her daughter and has received no condolences. She doesn’t know if there has been an investigation or a death review.

Arizona Luminaria reached out to the sheriff’s office on Sept. 7 to request records of an investigation or review. As of Sept. 28, officials have not responded. Officials with Pinal County jail also have not responded to questions about claims Mariah’s family has made about her care while behind bars.

“I don’t know if programming would have helped her, but the jail needs help,” Adrianna said. “It’s just deplorable that they’re mismanaging funds, that they’re using that money to help themselves.”

Mariah’s aunt, Olivia Molina, helped raise her. Mariah’s life took a turn for the worse when her girlfriend was murdered in 2016, Olivia said. When she was booked into Pinal County jail, she didn’t get help dealing with her withdrawal symptoms, she said. 

Mariah was vivacious, funny and smart, Olivia said. “That’s how I want her to be remembered,” she said. “Not for dying in there.”

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this article misstated that officials with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Legislative Council did not respond to questions. The article has been updated to clarify that officials responded saying they did not have any information on expenses allowed under the state law which regulates how sheriffs may use the funds.

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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...