Pima County OKs raises, retention payments for jail guards
Families of inmates voiced anger with Sheriff Nanos' push for new jail, point to multiple deaths behind bars
Pima County corrections officers will receive a 7.5% raise to their hourly wages and as much as $10,000 each in retention payments after the Board of Supervisors approved spending about $11 million to help the Sheriff Chris Nanos keep the jail staffed amid a “full-blown crisis.”
The bonus payments and raises each passed with a 5-0 vote of the supervisors at a meeting Tuesday. Four family members of current or deceased inmates spoke to oppose the proposal to build a new jail, and said they were upset by the lack of mention of deaths in the detention center. Nearly 20 people being held at the facility have died in the past two years.
The pay increase, which is effective on Jan. 1, brings the hourly wage for corrections officers up from $22.58 to $24.27 per hour, while correction sergeants will go from earning $29.25 per hour to $31.44, according to a county memo.
The jail will also receive nearly $9.2 million over the next three years for $10,000 retention payments for correction officers and $5,000 for new hires. The Arizona Department of Administration will pay for the hiring and retention stipends as House Bill 2862, a state law passed in June, sets aside the funding from the Border Security Fund, according to a county memo.
The raises and retention payments for Pima County jail workers come on the heels of a county board meeting during which Nanos pleaded for immediate salary increases for correction officers, a jail tax and a new adult detention facility.
Nanos wrote in a Dec. 5 memo to the county board the Pima County Adult Detention Complex has gone from critical state to a “full-blown crisis” because of how full it is.
Because the jail has reached 92% of its operational capacity, nearly 100 inmates are sleeping on the floor at the jail, Nanos wrote in the memo. The jail needs to remain below 85% capacity, and the current inmate population is at “a life-threatening level,” Nanos wrote.
The number of corrections officers at the jail also decreased by 30% in 2022, Nanos wrote, which has embolden inmates against officers. On Dec. 1, a correction officer with three months on the job was strangled until she was unconscious, Nanos wrote. A week before that, correction officers had to negotiate with 90 inmates who refused to stay in their cells.
He made no mention of the nine deaths in the jail this year nor the 10 inmate deaths in 2021, however, which was noticed by families of inmates. Many of the family members who were present on Tuesday to express their frustrations with the lack of action and attention on jail deaths have made the same points at protests as members of the No Jail Deaths coalition.
Rosanne Inzunza, the mother of 18-year-old Sylvestre Inzunza, who died after five days in the Pima County jail in February, spoke in front of the county board during their call to the audience, saying that she was upset that the deaths were not mentioned.
“What upset me was that nobody talked about the deaths that already happened that have nothing to do with the facility or the budget,” Inzunza said.
Inzunza said that the deaths at the jail need a “full analysis.” Choked with tears, she asked the board “Has an analysis been done? If so, what has been corrected to fix the death issues, and why are the deaths keep on happening?”
“The high number of deaths in the Pima County jail” were caused by “broken promises and procedures, and that includes health care, overcrowding and the fact that many people who are incarcerated suffer from mental health issues or addiction,” she said.
Frances Guzman, the mother of Cruz Patino Jr., a 22-year-old who died while an inmate at the jail in August 2021, pointed out the jail had “more passings in there than on death row” when she spoke in front of the supervisors Tuesday.
“Innocent until proven guilty is how it’s supposed to be, but my son didn’t get that chance,” Guzman said through tears.
‘Do we need a new jail?’
On Dec. 6, Nanos spoke in front of the Board of Supervisors to ask for better pay for the corrections officers as well as funding for a new jail facility.
The Adult Detention Complex “in its current condition, is not just unlivable for our inmates, but for me, it’s a disgusting place to work.” Nanos said that the deteriorating jail makes the job of a correction officer much more difficult.
“The flooding, the mold, the deterioration of the facility and the infrastructure itself is irreparable,” he said on Dec. 6. “We could throw millions of dollars at it, all in one, every day. It’s not going to get better.”
“Even in its most pristine condition, it's a tough job,” he told the board. “Now it’s in a condition that is just horrible, untenable, and I have staff that show up there every day.”
At their board meeting on Tuesday, each of the family members of currently jailed or deceased inmates disagreed with Nanos’ earlier comments and said it wouldn’t help.
“Last time, Chris Nanos stated it could be your mother, it could be your brother, it could be your loved one,” Frances Guzman said Tuesday. “It was my son who didn’t get a chance to come home, and it’s not because a new building is needed.”
Guzman and Shawn Lopez, Rosanne Inzunza’s boyfriend, said that more cameras in the jail were needed. Lopez said that cameras would help him and Inzunza uncover what happened during the night when Sylvestre died.
Guzman said the jail needs more cameras in blindspots because “just like there’s out here, there’s in there working.”
Billy Peard, the lawyer representing family members who have died in the jail, told the board that he agrees the jail is in a “full-blown crisis” but said that the request by Nanos for a new jail facility would do nothing.
“That is not the issue and that has not been the issue resulting in recent deaths and other mishaps in the jail,” Peard said. “Do we need a new jail? Absolutely not.”
Although Nanos noted that the jail is more than 40-years old, Peard contested “in the scope of detention facilities and prison facilities, it’s not that old.”
Tha jail has an average of 1,900 inmates a night, Peard said, but the facility’s square-footage should allow it to handle 2,300 inmates at a time. Peard also pointed out that during the past eight years, the jail had as many as 2,100 inmates at one time.
Instead of a new jail, Peard said the county needs more corrections officers, better training and acculturation, or to “create a better culture among the staff, among the sergeants, among the supervisors in that facility.”
Sharon Bronson, chair of the Board of Supervisors, was the only member of the board to directly address the jail deaths and ask why it’s a problem. She agreed with Peard that the issue may start with the culture among corrections officers in the jail.
“Why do we have all these jails deaths and what is the culture inside the jail with corrections officers?” Bronson said. “We’ve never had this problem, not to the extent that exists today, so how did we get here?”
Bronson was doubtful that staffing alone was the cause of the issue, saying “I can’t believe the issue is that we don’t have enough corrections officers. I think it’s something about the internal culture as well.”
Rosanne Inzunza’s lawyer Paul Gattone filed a lawsuit against Pima County and Sheriff Nanos in early November. Peard said that he and Gattone expect to file more lawsuits soon.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the name of the No Jail Deaths group.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.