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Being arrested in Pima County should not be a death sentence

Joel Feinman and Sarah Kostick are public defenders for Pima County.

Last year was the deadliest year at the Pima County Jail since at least 2009. In 2021, one person died in the jail approximately every 31 days – the majority of them young men of color “found unresponsive in their cells.”

2022 is on track to be even deadlier; already this year two more young men have died in the jail’s care and custody.

On Jan. 10, a 24-year-old inmate experienced medical distress at the jail and was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead from a fentanyl overdose on Jan. 14. The other man, only 18 years old, was found dead in his jail cell in the early hours of Feb. 2. On Feb. 3 the Pima County Sheriff’s Department – which runs the jail – announced it was launching a homicide investigation into the incident.

This is an abhorrent state of affairs, and if it was happening to anyone other than our clients it would not be allowed to continue.

While most drugs are still illegal in Arizona, their possession and use is not a capital offense. To those whose first reaction to these men’s deaths is “it was their own fault,” and “they shouldn’t do the crime if they can’t do the time,” we wonder if you would be so cavalier if it was your son who died with fentanyl in his system, or your daughter who had a seizure while she was detoxing.

The young men who died were not rich, not well-known, and not members of an important voting demographic.

On the contrary as accused criminal defendants they belonged to one of the few groups it is still socially acceptable to degrade, dehumanize, and allow to die with little if any consequence.

All the proof we need for this assertion is to look at how little was done last year to keep our clients from dying in the jail and how, so far this year, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department has done nothing different to protect them.

Moreover, the fact the Sheriff’s Department is in charge of investigating itself for wrongdoing, and no other law enforcement agency is interested, speaks to the unwillingness of the criminal justice system to protect our clients from abuse and neglect in any meaningful way.

If there is any response from the Sheriff’s Department to these most recent deaths it will likely be some version of “there is only so much we can do to help people detoxing from drugs.”

This ignores the fact that other agencies also tasked with providing detoxification services do not have the same abhorrent death rates the Pima County jail has had over the last 14 months.

The harsh reality is, if the jail cannot provide detox services to people in its custody without killing them it shouldn’t be in the detox business at all.

The Sheriff’s Department should acknowledge it is no longer able to humanely care for our clients who have acute substance abuse issues, and not admit them into the jail in the first place.

The government does not get to deprive our clients of their lives without due process of law just because it is unwilling or unable to offer medical treatment the Constitution obligates it to provide. The 5th and 14th Amendments contain no exception for indigent people, or houseless people, or people struggling with addiction

Sadly, it is virtually certain this argument will fall on deaf ears. It is a struggle to make people care about what happens in our jails and prisons, and make them understand just how dangerous and inhumane these places can be.

If one child was killed every month at a school, or one worshipper killed every month at a church, those institutions would be immediately shut down. Investigators, journalists, and enraged community members would be crawling all over the place. There would be crime scene tape and picket signs, red-faced television personalities screaming for something to be done, and prosecutors racing to file criminal charges to stop the carnage.

Elected officials would be elbowing each other out of the way to be first at the microphone to call for justice for the deceased, because politicians don’t win elections by letting schoolkids and good Christian churchgoers die.

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But even after George Floyd and Carlos Ingram-Lopez and Richard Lee Richards there is no real electoral penalty for allowing people accused of crimes to die, especially if they were killed by neglect.

Many of our clients can’t vote, so why would elected leaders spend any time or political capital on them anyway? The key to public success in this town is protecting the A-10 Thunderbolt, not fathers and mothers and sons and daughters in the Pima County Jail.

We refuse to accept this arrangement. The mission statement of the Pima County Public Defender’s Office reads, “In light of our shared and inherent humanity, we challenge injustice, promote systemic change, and advocate for the fair treatment of all people by providing vigorous representation as guaranteed by the United States and Arizona Constitutions.”

Our clients in the jail are not being treated fairly or humanely. We have an obligation to them and to their families to demand this state of affairs change, and change quickly.

Our community cannot keep ignoring our clients and their suffering while simultaneously claiming to be a progressive place, dedicated to making all its residents’ lives better.

To paraphrase Plutarch, “Justice will only be achieved when those who are not injured by crime feel as indignant as those who are.” Until those of us who have never set foot in the jail are as upset as the orphaned children and grieving widows left behind by the deaths occurring behind its bars, we cannot claim to be a community of liberty and justice for all.

Joel Feinman and Sarah Kostick are public defenders for Pima County.


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