A court ruling last week in a federal lawsuit over a teenager’s death in the Pima County jail may open the door to an illuminating probe about how deadly drugs have illegally gotten into the incarceration facility. 

A judge ruled that a lawsuit about the death of 18-year-old Sylvestre Inzunza, who overdosed on fentanyl after five days in the Pima County jail in February of 2022, may proceed to the legal stage of discovery, when parties of the trial are compelled to share previously undisclosed documents. 

The ruling in the wrongful-death case could lead to new insight into why people continue to die of drug-related causes in the jail, as well as provide a closer look at the county and sheriff’s department oversight of the facility.

Since the beginning of 2022, at least 18 people have died in the jail. Another 23 people have died over that same period within 30 days of being released, according to data from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

Sylvestre died in the jail after overdosing twice on fentanyl within a week of being booked into Pima County Adult Detention Center. After the first overdose, guards gave him at least nine doses of Narcan, a drug administered to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and he was transported to the hospital. Sylvestre was sent back to the jail after a few hours, and few days later he overdosed again, this time fatally. 

A lawsuit submitted on behalf of his family, with his younger sister Mariah Inzunza as lead plaintiff, was initially filed in November of 2022, alleging that Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos, as well as two jail guards, failed in their duties to keep Sylvestre safe. Lawyers representing Mariah filed an amended complaint in March of this year.

“During the months leading up to Sylvestre’s death,” Mariah’s attorneys claim in the lawsuit, “fentanyl and other illegal drugs consumed by detainees inside the Jail primarily arrived at the facility by way of Jail employees and/or Jail contractors.” The attorneys claim that “it was widely known” among the guards that jail staff “were engaged in smuggling contraband into the Jail for personal profit.” 

The attorneys argue that before Sylvestre died, and continuing today, family and friends are not permitted in-person visits, and mail is severely restricted, so any drugs getting into the jail must be transported in by the guards. 

On Nov. 15, Judge Scott H. Rash of the U.S. District Court of Arizona ruled that the case may proceed and the plaintiffs had sufficiently argued one of their key claims: that Sheriff Nanos and his department had established policies that did not sufficiently block contraband from entering the jail. 

Rash gave Nanos and his attorneys 14 days from the ruling to respond to all allegations in the complaint.

Paul Gattone, one of the attorneys representing the family, called last week’s decision a “pretty exciting and significant ruling from the court.” Gattone said that it will allow the case to open up an unprecedented view into policies at the jail. 

Rosanne Inzunza is Sylvestre’s mother and an outspoken advocate for more accountability and oversight of the Pima County jail. 

“As the mother of Fatty” — the family nickname for Sylvestre — “and an advocate for all families that have lost someone in Pima County Jail, it’s disheartening that it took the death of my son and many others to shed light on this issue here in Tucson, at the Pima County jail,” Rosanne told Arizona Luminaria.

Before a Blue Ribbon Commission meeting in August, in which appointed members were discussing the need and feasibility of building a new and bigger jail, Rosanne spoke out. Addressing community members who were against the new jail, she said, “Please, we don’t need a new jail. Let’s use that money for medical care, for more staff. A new jail isn’t going to fix the problem.” 

Protestors follow committee members outside the Pima County Courthouse after the final Blue Ribbon Jail Commission was abruptly adjourned following disruptions by the protestors on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023 in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

Community harm

Billy Peard, who works with Gattone, is another attorney representing the family. Peard explained that the ruling was narrowly focused on three Monell claims, which are ways for plaintiffs to sue an institution for policies or practices that lead to harm. 

As far as Peard is aware, this is the first, among at least five currently pending lawsuits focused on deaths in the jail, in which a Monell claim has been filed. 

“The very root of these civil rights laws,” Peard said, explaining the Monell claims, “recognize two ways governments violate civil rights.” 

The first way is explicit, when policies are written with the intent to oppress or discriminate, and less common in the 21st century, Peard said. The other way is when a custom or general practice of an institution violates someone’s rights. 

“I think the legal system has a habit of treating injury or harm as a harm suffered by an individual,” Peard added. “This is harm suffered by a community, harm that is caused by a community. It’s not caused by one individual on one bad day. And I think this ruling helps to acknowledge that for the first time.”

While the lawsuit makes a number of claims alleging misconduct on behalf of the individual guards, the county and the sheriff’s department, last week’s ruling only touches on one specific allegation: that Nanos and his department maintained policies that allowed contraband, specifically illegal drugs, to be smuggled into the jail. 

The Nov. 15 ruling states, “Plaintiff alleges Sylvestre was placed alone in a cell after suffering a drug overdose, was not sufficiently monitored by Jail COs [guards] or medical staff, acquired drugs within the Jail, and because he was not monitored, Sylvestre died in his cell from a Fentanyl overdose. These allegations are sufficient to state a Fourteenth Amendment claim and support the first prong of a Monell violation.”

Nanos told Arizona Luminaria that the sheriff’s department has introduced new measures since Sylvestre’s death to keep fentanyl and other drugs out of the jail. 

“We’ve always taken a stance that you can’t bring drugs or use drugs or have possession of drugs and be an employee with our agency. We just don’t accept it,” Nanos said. He said the department investigates any allegation against an employee for having or bringing drugs into the jail. 

While Nanos said he couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation, he said that his department has implemented a number of other measures to stop drugs from getting into the jail since February of 2022, the month Sylvestre died. 

Those measures include restricting what employees can bring into the jail, where they enter the jail (now only through one or two entrances) and new drug-sniffing dogs. They also have a body scanning device they use on people being booked into the jail, Nanos said.

“I want to knock on wood, but certainly when it comes to (fentanyl-related) deaths, those have been reduced” in recent months, Nanos said. 

Since February, 2022, there have been at least six in-custody, drug-related deaths. The last fentanyl-related death in the jail, of 24-year-old Jennifer Valenzuela, took place in June of 2023, according to data from the medical examiner.

Another one of the Monell claims made by the attorneys was that policies leading to understaffing played an important factor in Sylvestre’s death.

“While these allegations of low staffing levels are concerning,” according to the ruling, “Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged Sylvestre’s death was the result of a custom or policy of inadequate staffing.” Rather, the judge points to two of the individual guards failing to assure that Sylvestre was responsive while doing their rounds.

‘We’re going to pursue everything

What comes next is unclear, but the ruling allows for a potentially revealing probe of jail policies, attorneys said. 

“We’re going to pursue everything,” Gattone said. “All memoranda, all emails, all text messages of all relevant parties regarding what they knew and what they didn’t know. We’re going to go after all the info that was known about guards bringing drugs into the jail.”

The discovery process is likely to take about a year.

“We have made at least a preliminary showing that it’s probable that Inzunza’s death was equally caused by the customs at the jail as it was by the individual guards that were on duty that night,” Peard said.

The attorneys arguing the Inzunza case are focused on the particulars of what happened to Sylvestre, but they also recognize, and are deeply concerned about, the pattern of deaths in the jail. 

“First and foremost people are dying in the Pima County jail,” Gattone said. “Aside from the interests and rights of our clients, if we can prevent other deaths in the future that would be something we’d be very happy to accomplish.” 

He added that many of the people who have died or are held in the jail are pretrial detainees, meaning they have not been convicted of any crimes and have protected constitutional rights. 

“I went to sleep expecting to hear my son’s voice the next day,” Rosanne said, remembering when she first heard that Sylvestre had died. “Instead of hearing from my son, I received the news no mother would ever want to hear. If the incident had occurred in my custody, I would have been held responsible, and therefore, Pima County jail must equally be held responsible for my son’s death.”

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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...