Pima County Jail Has a Higher Per-Capita Death Rate Than Rikers

Surprisingly, the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine printed a letter from an inmate in the Pima County Jail:

Missed Connection

Rikers Island in New York has a reputation for violence, physical and mental abuse and neglect of its inmates.

“As a person who is incarcerated in Pima County Jail, I found it affirming to read Sarah Stillman’s article about the replacement of in-person visits with video calls (“The Right to Hug,” May 20th). I am writing this letter from “the hole”—isolated in a cell, with no view of the outside world. For people in my situation, communicating with our family and friends is all that we have.”

“Remote visits are not a suitable alternative to face-to-face connection. Stillman describes the technical difficulties; she could have also mentioned how hard it can be for loved ones to get verified by Global Tel*Link (now known as ViaPath) to use its services in the first place. Although some users do get verified quickly, others sit in limbo; trying to get verified can be incredibly frustrating.”

“Even when the service is available, it is often abysmal. Sometimes, you can’t even place a call, or the static is so bad that nobody can hear you. Or you end up staring at a gray screen, and the video feed is not working on your end. I didn’t have the heart to tell my mother, the last time we had a so-called video visit, that I couldn’t see her on my screen while she paid twenty-five cents a minute to see me.”

In 2022, our jail had a higher per-capita death rate than Rikers. Given that in-person visits have been shown to markedly reduce inmate violence, it is essential that jails support the ability of incarcerated individuals to maintain family bonds.”

Zobella Brazil Vinik
Tucson, Ariz.

A full-blown crisis

39 people died inside the jail or shortly after being freed from 2022 through September 2023, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner.  Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos said last year his facility was in a “full-blown crisis” at a “life-threatening level” due to overcrowding and understaffing.

A January report released by the Pima County Adult Detention Center Blue Ribbon Commission, which assessed the need for a new jail, found the jail houses as many as 769 more people than it was originally built for. Much of that overcrowding was in the mental health unit.

Officials say they need a new facility for people arrested while in a mental health crisis. The medical provider at the Pima County Detention Center in 2023 averaged 393 mental health evaluations monthly. An average of 631 people were on “mental health medications” out of an average daily population of 1,799 inmates.

The jail currently has a bed capacity of 2,030, and by 2044, data suggests the jail population will reach about 2,750. 

Who’s to blame?

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos acknowledged that there have been dozens of deaths inside the Pima County Jail in the last few years. He repeated his call for the construction of a new facility with additional beds, including for addiction services. Also, he emphasized the need for wraparound services that divert people with mental illness or addictions away from the jail.

Nanos is running for re-election with challenger Sandy Rosenthal, an Army veteran and former lieutenant in the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

“Since when does a building take precedence over people’s lives?” Rosenthal asked at a recent debate. He accused Nanos of lying about the numbers and the reasons behind the Board of Supervisors’ refusal to bolster funding for jail staff. Rosenthal read the names of a few of the 58 individuals who have died at Pima County Jail in recent years.

County officials estimated last year that construction of a new jail could cost taxpayers between $680 million to $858 million.

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