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Supervisor on Ariz. jail deaths: ‘Need to figure out how this is happening’

Since January 2021, the jail has reported 12 deaths at its facility, with two fentanyl-related ODs reported this year

By Nicole Ludden
The Arizona Daily Star

PIMA COUNTY, Ariz. — After the Pima County jail reported a decade-high number of deaths in 2021, Sheriff Chris Sheriff Nanos spoke to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to answer key questions about drug overdoses and staffing issues at the facility.

Since January 2021, the jail has reported 12 deaths at its facility, with two fentanyl-related overdoses reported this year.

Including the two deaths this year, five of the deaths were attributed to drug overdoses, with the most recent four caused by fentanyl. Three of the deaths resulted from medical complications, three from COVID-19, and one from suicide, according to the Pima County medical examiner’s findings. Of the 12 inmates, eight were people of color.

Supervisor Matt Heinz put the board’s discussion with the sheriff on Tuesday’s agenda amid scrutiny the Sheriff’s Department is facing for the deaths and outcry from advocates and family members of deceased inmates.

“I think this is really good to get out there for the public to continue to have this discussion in a very public and very transparent way,” he said. “This is a problem, and we need to own it and we need to figure out how this is happening.”

The last four deaths at the jail were attributed to overdoses. On Jan. 14, Pedro Xavier Martinez Palacios Jr., 24, was pronounced brain-dead at St. Mary’s Hospital after being transferred there for an overdose. On Feb. 2, Sylvestre Miguel Inzunza, 18, was pronounced dead at the jail, and the medical examiner later attributed the death to fentanyl intoxication.

Nanos told the board every corrections officer now has access to Narcan, whereas in the past, only the jail’s private medical providers administered the drug designed to reverse opioid overdoses. Regardless, inmates are still accessing the drugs that require overdose reversal.

Board Chair Sharon Bronson cut the conversation off after about 25 minutes, but Heinz said he wanted to know more about how fentanyl is getting into the jail population.

Nanos told the board “we are doing everything possible” to keep fentanyl out of the jail without providing many specifics. He said every death is investigated by sheriff’s personnel and discussed among officials from the county Health Department, the County Attorney’s Office, the medical examiner and NaphCare, the private correctional health care provider the county contracts with.

The sheriff said his department has presented a criminal case to the county attorney against an inmate who allegedly provided fentanyl to another inmate who died from an overdose. Nanos didn’t specify which inmate the case is in reference to.

“We sit down and discuss each and every incident and try to find where maybe we missed something,” Nanos said.

Heinz also asked Nanos about COVID-19 protocol at the jail. In 2021, the facility reported three COVID-related deaths. As of yesterday, the jail had 15 inmates who tested positive for the virus, Nanos told the board.

Universal masking is required at the jail, according to the sheriff, and inmates undergo a 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

However, Nanos said, the isolation protocol “creates double the work.”

“We have to deal with classification and placement of individuals, then have to do isolation,” he said. “It doubles that amount of work, the resources are doubled as well in terms of needs. So if we can reduce some of those timelines, it will help that staff over there tremendously.”

The increased work is compounded by a lack of adequate staffing at the jail. As of last week, the facility was short-staffed by 104 corrections officers, five corrections sergeants and two corrections lieutenants, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

“It would lead some to believe that perhaps the staffing issues contributed to the deaths because of the jail population and the reduced staffing oversight,” Supervisor Steve Christy said, later asking Nanos if he still supports the board’s vaccine mandate that extended to jail employees.

That mandate, which the board approved in October to require county employees deemed to work with vulnerable populations to be fully vaccinated by the end of 2021, resulted in the termination of 17 jail employees, according to numbers the county reported in January. It’s unclear, however, how many jail employees left voluntarily as a result of the mandate.

“The more staff we have, we can throw at the problem, I think the safer we are in that facility,” Nanos said. “So yes, staffing can certainly, I believe, help us there.”

But Nanos told the board he does not regret supporting the vaccine mandate for jail employees.

“When I made that decision, I have to handle all areas, not just fentanyl, not just staffing, but COVID as well. And that was a part of the problem,” he said. “The decision to mandate people getting vaccinated to protect those we serve was my decision.”

Christy followed up by asking the sheriff if that sentiment was relayed to the families of the deceased inmates, many who have gathered at the jail to demand answers about the deaths of their loved ones.

“I don’t know that. I myself have never spoken to those families. My cellphone number is out there, the whole world, everybody can contact me, I have never turned down anybody’s call,” Nanos said. “I don’t want to appear to politicize some of this. ... My heart goes out to them. I feel for them.”


(c)2022 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)