December 22, 2023 / Modified feb 15, 2024 12:39 p.m.

New jail could cost county up to $858 million

Pima County is facing two expensive options for addressing issues with its Adult Detention Center.

360 PIMA JAIL INMATES Two inmates stand in a hallway at the Pima County Jail.

The long-awaited initial findings of the County’s Blue Ribbon Commission present two feasible options for addressing a deteriorating jail struggling to keep up with the changing demands of the populations; either renovate, or rebuild.

But neither option is cheap, and both would expand the jail’s capacity.

Cost projections are even higher than the previously forecast $400 million. The report details renovation of the current jail will cost an estimated $490 million, and a new facility would land around $680 million.

But those numbers are in today’s dollars, and with the massive scale of both options, construction on either would not start for a few more years. The commission’s calculations for future costs bring the totals to around $623 million for existing renovations, and $858 million for a new building.

Two Possible Paths

The renovation option includes building a new housing unit with the recommended 1,132 additional beds, while revamping the existing building by replacing pipes, plumbing, and security features.

This option presents multiple logistical challenges, because the jail would remain open during construction and require a temporary relocation of inmates.

Although the rehabilitation would be designed to manage the next 20 years, it would also be the last possible expansion of the building, according to the commission’s findings.

A new jail facility, according to the commission, is “the best option for long-term benefit of capital investment” and “the least operationally disruptive solution.”

A new jail would have a capacity of 3,162 beds and be constructed with future expansion in mind.

The report does not include any location suggestions for the new jail except “neighboring County owned property,” and briefly mentioning the risk of “NIMBY’ism.”

The commission report describes four feasible tax-based funding options. A Jail District Excise Tax would require voter approval. The report acknowledges the county has often used General Obligation (or GO) Bonds to fund similar capital improvement projects

The Jail Now

The first section of the 18-page initial findings report describes multiple physical shortcomings of PCADC’s infrastructure. Specifically, the commission found serious flaws in the jail’s ability to handle inmates struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

According to the medical provider at the jail, an average of 631 inmates are on mental health medication at a time, and 393 receive mental health evaluations monthly.

And according to the report, the facility was just not built with this kind of care in mind.

“The current facility does not have space for more exam rooms, private contacts, and therapy space,” the report reads.

Mental health care providers at the jail told the commissioners there’s a serious need for housing with “quiet space.”

The fentanyl crisis has also brought its own share of challenges. According to the report, fentanyl has a longer withdrawal period than other drugs, and because inmates who are detoxing require constant monitoring and can only be placed on low-level beds for safety, detox facilities in the jail have been stretched to their limit.

PCADC estimates that by the end of 2023, close to 10,000 individuals will have been placed on detox protocols, or over 800 per month.


Future jail population projections for the next 20 years helped form the initial proposals. The jail currently has a bed capacity of 2,030, and by 2044, data suggests the jail population will reach about 2,750.

The commission recommends an additional 1,132 beds, bringing its total capacity to about 3,880.

Projections also estimate the jail population could exceed its current capacity by 2029 if no action is taken.


The Blue Ribbon Commission was chartered by the Board of Supervisors in January 2023 after Sheriff Chris Nanos called the state of the jail in December 2022 a “full-blown crisis.” The panel has met seven times since March 2023.

The commission's task, according to its charter, is “to assess the need for a new Pima County Adult Detention Center or improvements, as well as funding options.”

But activist groups like No Jail Deaths and the Tucson Bail Fund firmly oppose a new jail. Their members include family and friends of those who died in or shortly after being released from custody.

In multiple public meetings and protests, they have shared grief and frustration at the facility where their relatives died.

Only one virtual commission meeting, Aug. 21, was open for public comment. That meeting was rescheduled from an in-person meeting Aug. 10, when protestors played live music and chanted, leading the commission to adjourn after a few minutes.

In anticipation of the commission’s findings, community members organized as the No New Jail Coalition submitted a 43-page “People’s Report” of their own at the Dec. 19 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“Attempting to incarcerate away dire realities-a critical shortage of affordable housing, a serious lack of accessible mental health care, cycles of addiction and poverty- has never worked and has, in fact, only worsened the situation,” the report reads.

18 grassroots organizations contributed to the report.

The report then recommends multiple social programs that co-signers say will be more effective investments; affordable and transitional housing, overdose prevention sites, mental health services, crisis intervention programs, ending cash bail, and more.

“We’re not debating what type of structure is necessary to hold more people in our community. The only evidence-based models for those issues and these public health crises are housing and services,” said social worker Liz Casey.

County officials have skirted questions from the community.

Sheriff Nanos has said his department “shouldn't be expected to handle every problem society has.”

At the August 21 board meeting, Daniel Sharp said that solving the extensive jail issues was not included in the commission charter.

“For people to criticize us for basically doing what we were asked to do is a little disingenuous. We're not saying that it doesn't matter, we're just saying that it's beyond our scope,” he said.

And although there is no consensus yet, the report acknowledges the gravity of the situation.

“The risk of infrastructure-related emergencies and possible litigation against the County for conditions resulting from its poor infrastructure can increase,” the report reads.

What’s Next

Now that the report is live, the next step is public comment. An online public survey will open on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, where the commission will collect feedback on the findings.

Commission Chair Daniel Sharp wrote in an email that the responses from that survey will be used in their final deliberations.

Durazo also said the responses have the potential to influence the final recommendation.

“It could potentially add another recommendation, or include information that wasn't already part of the draft based on whatever results come out,” she said.

The survey will remain open for three weeks, until January 13th.

Sharp told County Administrator Jan Lesher in a memo to expect a final report Jan. 31. Lesher said she expected to add the item to the Feb. 20 meeting agenda.

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