January 31, 2024 / Modified feb 14, 2024 10:56 a.m.

Jail survey reveals lack of public consensus on potential expansion

Online survey shows many voters agree conditions, especially in healthcare facilities, need to improve, but the path forward is unclear.

360 pima county jail A Pima County correctional officer glances inside a cell at the county jail.
AZPM Staff

Pima County voters seem to be unsure of the best solution for the problems facing the Pima County Adult Detention Center.

The county has released data from its online public survey that asked participants about the Blue Ribbon Commission’s initial findings released Dec. 22.

In brief, the two options deemed feasible by the commission are either renovate the existing building and attach a new housing unit, or build a brand new jail.

Both options were formed on the basis that the county will need an additional 1,132 beds, based on population projections and jail data from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

In terms of who exactly took the survey, there were just under 2,000 responses. An overwhelming majority had lived in Pima County more than 10 years, and 30% of respondents had a family member incarcerated for at least a day.

The commission’s suggested expansion options, either renovate or rebuild, each got around 18% of responses. But another 18% percent said they were against any new expansion of the jail.

AZPM’s own analysis of the data showed that among those respondents whose family members had been held in jail, a slightly more 22% approved of a brand new building.

Cost projections were initially around $400 million dollars. Since construction on either option would not begin for a few years, future cost escalation estimates now put renovations at $623 million, and a new building at $858 million.

Nearly half of survey participants said they were not willing to pay any increase in taxes to pay for the new jail.

But where participants agreed most was the subject of healthcare. Over half the survey respondents said the jail did not have adequate facilities for inmates.

In a more specific question, 83% of responses said the mental health unit needed to be improved or expanded. Another 73% said the same for the medical and detox units, respectively.

Those results are consistent with the contents of a Nov. 7 memo to County Administrator Jan Lesher that gave an update on Naphcare, the healthcare provider at the jail since 2021.

According to the memo, Naphcare’s worst performance issues occurred with detox and mental health treatment planning. The cause of those issues, according to the memo, is staffing shortages and “a lack of permanent on-site leadership.”

The memo detailed in October 2022, the county had to withhold $360,000 in payment when Naphcare failed to meet staffing requirements. In leadership, Naphcare reported high turnover rates and difficulty filling the positions of Chief Psychiatrist and Mental Health Director.

Also outlined in the memo and the commission’s initial findings is the fact that the jail population is aging, and their healthcare needs are changing.

“80% of the adult population have a chronic condition ranging from cardiovascular to cancer. Almost 40% have some form of substance use disorder and greater than 50% have a mental health condition requiring medication,” it said.

Similarly, the commission’s initial findings reported the current building is not equipped to handle patients with mental illness.

Recent reporting has named Pima County as one of the deadliest jails in the country, and the news of a potentially bigger jail has sparked protests against expanded incarceration for the past year.

Even county leaders admit the scale of the problem, like Commission Chair Daniel Sharp.

“There are limited options to address the current real and growing needs of the facility that impact inmates, Corrections and medical staff,” he wrote in a Dec. 13 memo.

With little consensus from the community, the next steps are in the hands of the Board of Supervisors. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s final report, with included input from the public survey, was due to the County Administrator Jan. 31.

The board is scheduled to discuss that report at their Feb. 20 meeting.

See the county's dashboard on the survey data here.

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