BISBEE — A panel preparing a presentation about Cochise County Jail conditions is using two words to describe the aging facility — “condemned” and “outdated.”

That’s not surprising to Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, who has been a vociferous proponent for a new jail for the past several years.

The sheriff said a yearlong effort that took a look at the jail’s decrepit equipment, rotting infrastructure and crowded conditions is almost wrapped up. He and the panel experts plan to present their findings to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors in about two weeks in the hopes that its three members will agree it’s time for a new correctional facility.

“We’re at the point now where the facilities, the infrastructure, don’t match industry standards,” Dannels said this week. “We’ve had correctional experts come in and it’s been agreed upon that this is not a facility we can do anything with anymore.

“It’s time to move on from this facility. It’s outdated.”

The jail was built in 1985, said Cochise County Corrections Lt. Ariel Monge. That’s already six years past the time when the facility should have been razed and a new one built in its place. According to a 2006 article for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections titled “Building Community Support for New Jail Construction,” the general lifespan of a jail building is 25 to 30 years.

“ ... then, such facilities are reaching the point where costly updates and repairs to their structural, mechanical and operating systems are going to become a necessity,” the article states.

The advent of COVID-19 in early 2020 did not help matters, since a large portion of the jail had to be set aside for sick inmates and new ones who had to quarantine for 14 days upon entering the facility, officials said. That left less room for the general population, prompting overcrowding and triple-bunking in cells, one jail official said.

Generally, there are about 200 inmates at the jail on any given day. Tuesday morning for example, 217 inmates were listed on the Sheriff’s website. According to Cochise County Corrections Lt. Christy Heisner, four pods — 120 beds — have been set aside for pandemic purposes. Heisner said that leaves only about 140 beds for the general population.

Meanwhile, constantly repairing and replacing old equipment and parts at the Cochise County Jail is routine, says Dannels and his senior staff. The facility is one of three in the state built in the mid-to-late 1980s that have not been replaced. The other two, Monge said, are in Greenlee and Gila counties.

“I know of jails built in the early to mid-90s that have already built a whole new facility,” Monge said. “We’ve just fallen behind.”

The Herald/Review was given a tour of the jail on Judd Drive in Bisbee earlier this week. The facility is old and dingy.

Doors are rusted and don’t open and close smoothly. New locks for the doors cost about $3,000 apiece because they must be retrofitted to fit aged hardware. The ceiling in the booking area is low and is stained with brown unsightly water stains from the recent monsoons. The intake room is a counter and a small area behind it where an officer inputs all the information regarding a new inmate. There is no partition between the officer and the inmate such as in more modern correctional facilities where a glass or plexiglas divider separates the two.

A tiny holding cell in front of the intake counter has metal bunk beds and has been outfitted with a small railing for inmates who are handicapped, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. When the facility was built there were no such requirements, Monge said. The railing is now considered a hanging hazard for suicidal inmates.

There is exposed wiring that runs along the top of the walls in the jail’s corridors. Monge explains that the facility obviously was built before the advent of the internet, so wiring had to be added. Some of the wiring has been covered in grayish-white casing, other sections of it have not.

The jail was built without any consideration for housing juvenile offenders. There is no longer a juvenile correctional facility in Cochise County. Juveniles arrested in Cochise County must sometimes be housed at the county jail until they are sent to the juvenile detention center in Santa Cruz County. They must be kept separate from the adult population, Monge said, and that presents challenges to an already thin staff of corrections officers.

The control room, which in modern facilities is usually a large central office with banks of computers and cameras designed to keep on an eye on pretty much everything inside a jail, has been relegated to a tiny room in the center of a tight hallway. The one-way mirror windows, meant to afford a view of the corridor and any potential ruckus by an inmate, are blocked by computers, a detail that Heisner, who has worked at the jail for 18 years, points out twice: “The computers are blocking the mirrored windows,” she says.

Another issue is the sallyport, Monge says. The space doubles as a sallyport — where inmates are brought in and transported out — and a property section where inmates’ belongings are stored until they’re released or sent to prison. The property area is fenced off and locked in order to prevent theft, Monge says, but it takes up room that could otherwise be used for the sallyport. The end result is a very tight space for both uses.

Some of the lights on the ceiling outside a pod where difficult inmates are monitored are covered rudimentarily with cardboard squares. Monge says that way officers can see the inmates better than the inmates can see them from inside the pod. A more modern jail would have upgraded lighting that could achieve that without having to cover some of the lights with cardboard, he said.

The kitchen, where about 600 meals are prepared daily, presents its own set of obstacles and headaches.

Kitchen director Zheyla Baltierrez comes to the doorway of the food preparation area where a workman is laboring on the floor, attempting to fix archaic-looking pipes.

Hard water is the main culprit in the culinary section of the jail, say Baltierrez and Monge.

“The water is so hard it hurts the plumbing,” Monge says. “We can only fix what we can get to. There may be areas underground that we can’t get to where there is corrosion. What we can’t reach kind of tells the tale of why we need a new facility. Our water and sewer lines are damaged by the hard water.”

Baltierrez says it’s a constant battle dealing with outdated equipment breaking down during the food preparation.

She says jail officials have had to “outsource” repairs of certain equipment in the kitchen because it’s so old that it can’t be fixed in-house.

“We’re running all these meals and having things break down,” she said. “Sometimes the electrical components go down from the exhaust fans, the freezer doors are outdated.”

The main thing besides making the meals is keeping the sanitation level in the kitchen up to par, Baltierrez said.

“When things are breaking down all the time that’s hard,” she said.

Monge explained that original parts for many of the machines at the jail are no longer available, so newer parts are purchased and retrofitted to the outdated machinery.

“Just to fix a valve for a sink, it costs $1,000,” Monge says. “We’re making the old work with the new. Specialty items cost a specialty price.”

Convincing the county supervisors to build a new correctional facility, which undoubtedly will cost millions, will be a monumental task, as well.

In the same 2006 article for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections, the author stated that selling the construction of a new jail to the community is a tall order because the majority of citizens are not sympathetic to jail inmates.

The article compared jail and school construction projects: “A school project has broad, natural constituencies (parents, teachers) and very sympathetic beneficiaries (children). A jail project can count on jail staff as supporters, but their numbers are relatively small, and many people do not feel particularly sympathetic to the inmate population.”

The article also stated: “Every jurisdiction must make choices regarding the best use of available capital and operating dollars. To ensure adequate resources to address the jail’s problems, elected officials must be encouraged to support what is often perceived as a ‘politically unpopular’ cause and make a commitment that may mean deferring expenditures on more popular projects. “

Dannels said that over the years the main request he’s made for the jail is additional personnel. Being a corrections officer is not an easy job because of the risk involved when dealing with inmates. Currently there are about six or seven officers per shift handling about 200 inmates.

Monge, who has been at the jail for 21 years, said he would like to see double the staff for every shift.

Dannels said members of his staff have been working on a presentation about the jail and its dire condition that will be given to the Cochise County Board of Supervisors at work session in a couple of weeks.

“We’ve been working with mayors and police chiefs around the county to let them know what’s going on,” he said. “This is not just a sheriff’s project, this is a community project.

“We want to make sure we go to the public. We want to make sure we answer all their questions. What’s the impact to the community, the good, the bad and the indifferent.”