New Pima County Jail? 'Blue Ribbon Commission' releases draft report, launches online survey

The committee evaluating if Pima County should build a new jail released their initial report and is seeking public input via an online survey over the next three weeks.

Since March, the Pima County Adult Detention Center Blue Ribbon Commission has been reviewing the jail to “determine the need and feasibility” of either improvements to the 40-year-old facility or the construction of a new jail. 

The 10-member commission is composed of “construction industry,
criminal justice, and law enforcement experts” who “held several public
meetings over the summer and compiled data and other research to inform
its findings,” county officials said. “The report focuses on three
areas: Facilities condition; jail operations and capacity; and
improvement options and funding.”

However, this will be part of a “more expansive
discussion about what type of services should be provided with any new
facility, and if it gets created or not,” said Pima County spokesman
Mark Evans during an interview with Tucson Sentinel earlier this year.

The commission planned to host a public comment session in August, but that plan ran aground after a meeting was scuttled by fury over deaths at the facility. The committee later held a meeting online, while a September meeting was cancelled.

The Blue Ribbon Commission launched the survey
on Dec. 26 and will collect responses through Jan. 13, 2024, Pima
County officials said Tuesday. The commission will “analyze the results”
and include them in their final report to Pima County Administrator
Jan Lesher at the end of January. Lesher will submit the report to the Board of Supervisors in February.

“The survey asks general questions about respondents’ overall knowledge
of the jail and its condition,” county officials said Tuesday, adding
respondents “are encouraged” to read the commission’s initial findings
draft published on Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas.

The jail is a maximum- and medium-security facility with a total bed capacity of 2,030 people, the commission said in their report. The 385,000-square foot facility has been upgraded three times since its original construction in 1979, the result of a federal consent decree, the Commission noted. In 1988, the jail was expanded to include another 594 beds, and another unit was built in 1997 and completed in 2004, adding another 596 beds.

“Today, the aging facility and changing needs and requirements for those incarcerated and staff have pushed the facility to its operational and design capacity in critical areas,” the commission wrote. The group wrote they found several “critical areas of concern,” including the jail’s “aging physical infrastructure, including conditions of housing units, utility infrastructure, and safety measures.”

The commission also identified overcrowding in “certain conditions, lack of critical space for medical, mental health and detoxification services, staffing levels and pervasive signs of deteriorating sanitation and water-line infrastructure, common areas and lack of space for support services. Addressing these issues is crucial to ensure the well-being of inmates and staff.”

The group appointed by Lesher laid out two options for dealing with the jail, including renovating the current buildings and adding a new 1,132-bed facility, or building a completely new 3,162-bed facility from scratch. 

The estimated cost for an onsite expansion and renovation is $490 to $623 million, the Commission said. The estimated cost of a new building is $680 to $858 million, they said. 

The commission also noted there are several ways to collect the funding necessary for either option, including a general half-cent sales tax, a quarter-cent jail district excise tax, a bond, or a “pay as you go” otherwise known as a PAYGO program.

Since 2017, 56 people have died while in custody at the Pima County jail including 12 who died during a streak of fatal incidents at the jail in 2022. In 2023, eight people have died in custody, suffering from fatal medical conditions, acute intoxication of fentanyl and methamphetamine, and at least one suicide.

The last person known to have died at the jail was 36-year-old Aaron Moore, who succumbed to fentanyl intoxication and a collapsed lung in September, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner.

Last year, 37-year-old Wade Welch died after he was tased repeatedly by corrections officers. Earlier this month, Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said after a months-long investigation that her office would not pursue criminal charges against the officers. 

Pima County Sheriff’s deputies also failed to notify the family of 22-year-old Caleb Kenowski after he died in May at the jail. In August, a Tucson Sentinel reporter located Kenowski’s family and they were informed about his death.

The rising number of deaths in 2022 prompted Sheriff Chris Nanos to say his facility is in a “full-blown crisis” and at a “life-threatening level” due to overcrowding and under-staffing. In memo to the Board of Supervisors last December, Nanos warned the jail had reached 92 percent of its operational capacity while the number of corrections officers decreased 30 percent in 2022.

That same month, Nanos asked for help to build a new jail, and the county supervisors created the Blue Ribbon Commission after Nanos “ardently requested” their help to pass a half-cent sales tax to fund the construction of a new Adult Detention Complex. The current facility was built in 1984, and has “critical infrastructure and capacity issues,” county officials said, adding over the last four decades, there have been changes in legislation, technologies, inmate populations affecting the jail, and “needs are significant.”

On Tuesday, No Jail Deaths — now called No New Jail Coalition — sharply criticized the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report and the design of the public survey, arguing the commission’s findings “completely assume the conclusion, with passing mention of policy interventions” that could decrease the number of people at the jail.

The “commission proceeds to offer two options for our county that would cement its current disastrous approach, demanding hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the jail’s bed capacity and service provision–either by building a new jail or renovating the current building” 

“Instead of engaging seriously with the possibility, and the moral imperative, of removing people from the Pima County Jail and interrupting cycles that lead to incarceration, the BRC’s initial findings suggest instead that the county must divert nearly a billion dollars into building an entirely new jail before any conversation about justice reform can take place,” the group said. “A massive investment of taxpayer dollars into the county jail, the permanent expansion of its bed space, and the concentration of healthcare and social services inside a jail complex means that the county will have monetary and policy incentives to fill the jail to capacity into perpetuity, and likely to expand it further.”

The coalition also argued the commission’s proposals would undermine other criminal justice initiatives, including the county’s Macarthur-grant funded Safety and Justice Community Collaborative, the Prosperity Initiative and the Transition Center located at the jail.

“While these programs tout their ability to reduce recidivism and interrupt incarceration, a jail built to accommodate a predicted inevitable rise in jail population runs exactly counter to any progress these programs can claim,” the group said.

Finally, the group criticized the commission’s refusal to consider why inmates have died at Pima County jail over the past three years, arguing it was “outside their scope” of their analysis.

“At no point did this commission consider the actual causes of death inside the jail or the horrific conditions that have resulted out of the county’s contract with Naphcare and the sheriff’s chronic mismanagement of the facility,” the coalition said. “The reality is that any actual analysis of the deadly and inhumane conditions inside the Pima County jail would involve a full acknowledgement that jail cannot be made humane or habitable.”