Live music and shouts of “no new jail” forced a Pima County committee to end a public meeting about a new jail after protestors entered the room playing music. It would have been the first meeting that allowed community members to give feedback on the new jail proposal since the Pima County Adult Detention Center Blue Ribbon Commission’s start back in March.
A local advocacy group, No Jail Deaths, organized a rally at the Pima County Historic Courthouse ahead of the Thursday meeting to call for alternatives to a new facility.
“Jails don't treat addiction. They don't treat mental illness, and they don't treat poverty. A new jail won't prevent deaths and won't create more safety for our community. The jail is being used as a catch-all solution for society's shortcomings,” Caitlin Beckett, a community organizer with No Jail Deaths, said during the press conference. “ If we build it, the sheriff will be incentivized to fill it.”
Last year, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos asked the county board of supervisors to approve a new jail, saying the current one is creating capacity and staffing challenges due to crumbling infrastructure.
The board created the Blue Ribbon Commission to tackle the problem. But, opponents say the new jail will increase deaths as more inmates fall out of view from the officers. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has come under scrutiny over recent years over its response to the growing number of deaths within the jail. Earlier this year, AZ Luminaria reported that in 2022 the county reported 12 deaths within the jail– "an estimated per capita mortality rate of more than four times the national rate as of 2019.”
The new jail would cost the county upwards of $400 million dollars and increase the jail population from 1,812 to nearly 2,750 by 2044, according to projections from the commission.
Community members from Thursday’s protest said they would rather see that money go toward community-based resources.
“Affordable housing and legal means of escaping poverty are disappearing,” Beckett said. “We must invest in social services and economic security and self-determination for communities targeted for incarceration.”
Now, they are questioning more than just the need for a new jail, but the board of supervisors as well.
“We question the Board of Supervisors' decision to put together a commission primarily consisting of former law enforcement to determine the complex social needs of our county,” Beckett said.
Thursday’s protest organizers criticized the commission for not addressing recent jail deaths as they examined the need for a new jail.
“The conditions leading to the deaths of our community members, the chronic mismanagement of the building, and the culture of negligence inside are not under review and we are told are outside the scope of this Commission's inquiry,” one organizer said.
However, a county spokesperson says the commission was tasked with how to address facility issues–not criminal justice reform.
“Their charter is to review, do we need a new building? If we do, at what size and scope and at what cost? Or do we just need to renovate the existing building? Or do we need a combination of both of those things and that's what they've been doing,” said Pima County's Mark Evans.
As the meeting ended, one protestor claimed to have been shoved by a committee member who was attempting to leave the building. The committee claims that as the meeting ended items began to be thrown at them. Daniel Sharp, the committee’s chair, released the following statement in response to this morning’s altercations:
“I had hoped this morning’s meeting would be an open and informative discussion about the remaining issues before the Commission as we prepare to present our findings to the County Administrator. That included putting a public comment period on the agenda so the Commission could hear from the public about areas of concern the Commission should consider. County security staff had alerted me that some members of the protest occurring outside the meeting were making statements about disrupting the meeting. I was prepared for the potential of disruption of some kind, but not for the way that it occurred. As the loud music and chanting continued, I was looking for some indication that the group would settle down and allow the meeting to continue, but it became clear to me that the noise and disruption was not going to die down. I decided to adjourn the meeting and intended to gather the commissioners together away from the protest and discuss whether to attempt to continue the meeting or whether to try to schedule it for some other time. Before that could happen, items were thrown from the crowd at Commissioners and there was an altercation involving a Commission member. I became concerned for the safety of the Commissioners and the members of the public and didn’t want the situation to escalate further, therefore I believed it was best for all to send the Commissioners home and seek another day to complete the Commission’s important work.”
The local organizers eventually took over the meeting space to continue the public meeting after the committee members abandoned the room.
Evans said the committee's work is not finished.
“We definitely want to hear from the public,” he said. “But if groups who have strong feelings about certain aspects that that public body is discussing, and they want to express their concerns and do it and to the point where the body can't discuss things, then the meeting can't proceed, and we can't do the people's business.”
The commission has not said when the meeting will be rescheduled.