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

Pinal County Sheriff and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Lamb says he did not misspend at least $217,000 when his office diverted the money from a fund that Arizona lawmakers mandated be used “for the benefit and welfare of inmates” to instead buy a cache of weapons. Lamb said the expenditure on weapons, ammunition and ballistic vests is legal because the guns are meant to protect people who are incarcerated.

“We were accused of spending $217,000 inappropriately,” Lamb said. “The actual total is $222,463.” That’s approximately 5.5% of the total expenditures from the welfare fund over a five-year period.

According to criminal justice experts, Lamb’s use of the money runs afoul of Arizona law.

“The statute makes clear that they took money that has to be spent for the benefit of incarcerated people. And bullets cannot be in any way seen to benefit anyone incarcerated there,” said Jared Keenan, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. 

“I’m just reading the plain language from the state statute and it’s pretty clear that what he’s spending that money on violates the state law,” Keenan added. “He’s clearly acknowledged the benefits are not for the people detained in the Pinal County jail, which is precisely what the money must be used for.”

Lamb was called before the Pinal County Board of Supervisors at a regular meeting Wednesday, Oct. 18 to answer questions about whether it was legal for his office to spend the funds on weaponry when state law mandates the monies to be used for programs and services — such as education, food or training — that benefit people behind bars.

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Chair supervisor Jeff Serdy requested the discussion at the board’s Oct. 4 meeting following an Arizona Luminara investigation published on Sept. 29 about Lamb’s office spending the funds. Arizona Luminaria had reviewed expenses and revenues from the sheriff’s office inmate welfare fund from July 2018 to July 2023 and uncovered more than $200,000 spent on guns, ammo and ballistic vests.

The public conversation was listed on the agenda as “administration of special services fund by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office in accordance with A.R.S. 31-121 and the uses and programs supported by these funds.”

Sheriff Lamb’s stance

Lamb argued that he thinks it’s legal to spend the restricted funds on guns because guards need the weapons to protect the welfare of incarcerated people, as well as to protect jail workers and others from incarcerated people.

It remains unclear exactly how the funds are being legally used in Pinal County, as Lamb’s explanation for guns as a source of welfare for inmates was based on a wide array of law-enforcement actions — ranging from transportation to searches inside the jail, protecting hospital workers from inmates and intervention when inmates are suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis.

“We have the responsibility of transporting inmates throughout this state to different courts, to the hospitals, to a lot of different places,” Lamb said. “We are tasked with ensuring the welfare and the safety of not just those inmates, also our staff and the public, who may or may not come in contact with these inmates. I would absolutely think that part of that welfare is to be able to do that to protect them.”

The money at issue is typically called “inmate services” or “inmate welfare” funds. 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 also said that his officers do “cell extractions for people who are may be suicidal and are having mental health issues. All of these issues require special response teams. Therefore, they need proper equipment so that they don’t get hurt, and we can appropriately address the inmates.”

He said that the vests and guns will “reduce any harm to their welfare.”

“And guns are no good without bullets,” Lamb added. “So while we give our guys guns, they obviously require bullets as well.”

Bullets for welfare

Criminal-justice experts countered Lamb’s logic.

“It’s sad that the sheriff insinuates that he’s purchasing bullets so it can potentially be used against someone having a mental-health crisis,” Keenan said. “It’s really absurd and frankly disturbing that that’s seemingly his claim.”

In an interview after the meeting about using funds to benefit people behind bars for other purchases, Lamb told Arizona Luminaria — “We try to supplement where possible when it falls within the regulations of welfare for the inmates.” 

Arizona Luminaria asked Lamb whether when his office sees the need for weapons and there is not sufficient money for it in the general fund, if he feels he can legally dip into the inmate welfare fund.

Lamb said: Yes. But only “if it applies. We felt it did apply.” He added that spending more than $200,000 from the inmate welfare fund on weapons and related items was “100% within the parameters of what we do.”

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.

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.”

Arizona Luminaria reviewed five years of records from Coconino, Pima, and Maricopa counties, and has found no evidence of the use of welfare funds to purchase weapons or ammunition.

According to the law, “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.”

During the meeting, Lamb repeatedly said to the board of supervisors that the Arizona Luminaria article was a “hit piece” geared against him “and not toward the truth.”

Lamb spotlighted “all the good things we do” with inmate welfare fund money, such as spending on global leadership, GED and tattoo removal programs. He said that despite only spending $900 dollars on books over about five years, people in the jail have access to donated and digital books.

Arizona Luminaria reached out to Lamb for comment twice before publishing the initial investigation. He did not respond. Luminaria also reached out to officials with the sheriff’s office. They defended using the fund on weapons, however, did not highlight any of the other ways they used it to benefit incarcerated people.

Lamb argued that the law is “general in nature” to provide flexibility across Arizona jails to achieve the welfare and education of inmates.

“It doesn’t say that we can use it for guns and bullets or vests. It also doesn’t say we should buy them toilet paper. But we also know that that’s part of maintaining their welfare,” he said. 

Lamb balked at criticism from the public, the media and civil rights groups questioning the legality of the expenditures.

“I find it a little bit funny that a lawyer from ACLU or somebody who deems themselves an expert, not in the corrections field, and certainly not working for the sheriff’s office, would know what was best for the welfare of our inmates,” he said. 

The ACLU of Arizona has been monitoring the conditions of jails and prisons in Arizona for years. After a decade in the courts, they recently won an injunction from a U.S. District judge requiring substantial changes in how medical care is provided in Arizona prisons.

Arizona Luminaria had received no response from the sheriff’s office about a $39,000  spending line item from the fund listed only as “heavy equipment.” At the meeting, Lamb said his office used the $39,000 for a forklift, replacing one that broke, to unload commissary items for people held in the jail.

“There’s nothing we’re hiding,” Lamb said, adding, “We work hard to be one of the model jails of this state.”

Board chair Serdy asked Lamb about deaths in custody as a measure of the welfare of people behind bars. Citing deaths in Maricopa County jails for comparison, Serdy asked, “What are our numbers?”

Lamb said there have been nine deaths in the jail since 2018.

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.

Public weighs in 

During the call to the audience, members of the public both opposed and supported Lamb and his office using the inmate welfare fund on weapons.

“I believe that Sheriff Lamb did what was right. I trust him,” Boots Hawks said. “If it’s that money that they’re talking about, it’s supposed to be there to make life easier for the people in jail. They’re not in there to have an easy life. They’re in there for punishment.”

Roberto Reveles said that without an audit no one would know if Lamb was using the funds legally. 

“Hopefully, the public will not be left to trust that the administrator of the alleged misuse of funds has investigated himself and found himself to be in compliance with the state law,” Reveles said, adding that state law paves the way for public transparency. “Mr. Chairman, don’t allow yourselves, as I’ve said before, to be left with the burden of accountability for the possible misuse of county funds. Exercise your budget responsibility and authority. Please, again, I urge, direct your staff to arrange for a disinterested audit by the independent audit services available to you.”

Voters have a say in oversight of elected sheriffs.

“For the public that is concerned that their tax dollars are being misused and in violation of state law, an audit is probably a good starting point,” Keenan said. “Ultimately, voters are going to have to decide if they think the sheriff is misusing funds or acting in a way that’s contrary to what they want. They have the opportunity to vote him out at the next election.”

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. 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.

Kevin Cavanaugh, District 1 supervisor, asked if the attorney general had given any direction about the use of funds. 

“Who ultimately decides whether the funds were used properly or not?” Cavanaugh asked.

Civil-rights attorney Keenan said that there are accountability measures, including a review by Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes, for ensuring that the sheriff is not violating state laws.

“It’s not for the sheriff to unilaterally decide what complies with state statute,” Keenan said. “We have courts for that. The attorney general has the authority to investigate in certain situations. I would think the AG would be interested in doing so here.”

People who are incarcerated also have the right to file for legal recourse, he said.

Lamb said that he wasn’t aware of any case law that addressed the specifics of what items can be purchased as part of the welfare fund. He reiterated that buying the guns and ammunition “was well within our abilities” of ensuring “the welfare of these inmates.”

Lamb added, “I think that the reason the law is somewhat general and ambiguous is because each jail is dealing with a different set of circumstances or challenges.”

Lamb addressed the public’s call for an audit of his spending: 

“I would more than welcome an audit. Just so you know, it is a may. So the fact that if you don’t do an audit, that’s completely up to you. It is not a shall law.”

Pinal County’s fund is managed by Sheriff Lamb, but state oversight permits the county board of supervisors to authorize an audit every two years to ensure money paid by people who are incarcerated and their loved ones is spent legally. Jail administrators must also prepare regular statements of commissary operations. 

Before the initial investigation, 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.

The supervisors seemed satisfied with Lamb’s explanations at Wednesday’s meeting. 

“It’s difficult for us to sit here and think that we can micromanage. We leave your business to your business. You know it better than I do,” Supervisor Stephen Miller, of District 3, said. “I’m all about transparency and making sure we stay within the guidelines of how we can use these dollars.”

However, Miller stressed that Lamb must still answer to the public.

“I hope your explanation today is satisfactory to the citizens of Pinal County,” Miller said.

Supervisor Mike Goodman, of District 2, praised the sheriff and urged him to force people behind bars to perform jail labor.

“Why in the world didn’t you use the prisoners to unload when your forklift was down?” Goodman said. “Now, there probably would get a lot of controversy over that, and that’s OK. I think you’ve done a great job all the way around.”


Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson Visuals: John Washington

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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...