BISBEE — The precautions that COVID-19 has forced officials to take at the Cochise County Jail have made conditions at the 36-year-old facility more dire and stressful than they have ever been, Sheriff Mark Dannels said recently.
For starters, anyone who gets arrested will automatically go straight into quarantine at the jail for 14 days, whether the person has virus symptoms or not. If the inmate is able to bond out before the two-week period ends, they can do so.
Sheriffs and jail officials in neighboring counties have taken similar precautions. The idea was crafted by Cochise County Cmdr. Kenny Bradshaw and shared with other counties, said Dannels.
But the pandemic and all the baggage of worries and precautions it brings with it has made getting arrested even more stressful, Dannels said. And as a result, suicide attempts at the Cochise County Jail have increased over the last six months.
Additionally, the sheriff says the fact his jail is old and in disrepair does not make matters easier.
“This is a high-risk jail, it’s the oldest functioning jail in the state,” Dannels said.
An increase in suicide attempts is not an issue at the neighboring detention centers in Pinal, Pima and Santa Cruz counties, and all three of those jails are more modern than Cochise County’s.
While statistics of how many more suicide attempts there have been at the Cochise County Jail over the last six months were not available for this article, the sheriff said there were four attempts in a two-week period just recently, which is not common. The most recent attempt occurred last week in the quarantine section when an inmate who had been there for two days tried to hang himself, Dannels said.
A corrections officer spotted the inmate just in time.
“The corrections officer saved him,” the sheriff said. “It’s tough right now. Since I’ve been sheriff we’ve had more suicide attempts than we have ever had, especially in the last six months.”
The Sheriff mainly blames the onslaught of COVID-19 for making matters worse.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Dannels said. “Our challenges are great right now.”
While the population at the jail has dropped by about 30 percent since the virus struck, the situation with quarantining inmates has made it more difficult for them to cope, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas.
When the virus surfaced in the spring, Dannels had asked other law enforcement agencies in the county to use their discretion when arresting people so the jail population at the Bisbee facility could be kept safer and at a manageable count. For the most part, police are not arresting people who do not present a danger to the community, Dannels said. However, if there’s a warrant for the person’s arrest, or if they act out with the officer, they’re going to jail, he said.
In quarantine, each inmate is alone, Capas said. On the day the sheriff spoke to the Herald/Review, there were 27 inmates in quarantine — 22 men and five women, Capas said. The total inmate population on that day was 151.
Capas said the isolation in quarantine is contributing to many inmates’ “mental anguish.”
“If you don’t have a mental issue, it (the quarantine) can be bad enough,” Capas said. “But if you do have a mental issue and you’re overwhelmed with the situation, then it becomes very difficult.”
While the sheriffs in Pima, Pinal and Santa Cruz counties all have COVID-19 precautions in place at their jails, they have not seen an uptick in suicide attempts.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said suicide attempts at his facility have not been an issue because “our population is low.” The lieutenant at the jail, Raoul Rodriguez, said inmates there are placed in a seven to 10-day quarantine when arrested.
Pima County also is doing a 14-day quarantine at their lockups, said Sheriff Mark Napier. The sheriff said he consulted with former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona for advice on what measures to take at the detention center. Napier said “robust screening” is done on inmates and personnel at the jail, and no one who is COVID positive is brought into the facility. The sheriff said suicide attempts at the jail have not increased and have remained “flat.”
Lauren Reimer, a spokeswoman for Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, said arrestees who have symptoms before they’re booked will be sent to a health care provider for testing.
“Within the jail, all inmates are being screened for signs of illness by our medical staff,” Reimer said in an email.
Symptomatic inmates are given an N95 mask and placed into a reverse airflow room, she said.
“We then contact Pinal County Health Services for assistance with testing, investigating, quarantining and treatments (if required). We currently have a designated area of our jail for inmates who may have been exposed until a negative test may be determined.”
Reimer said she was unaware of any increase in suicide attempts at the facility.
While there is a jail in Sierra Vista — it’s right next to Canyon Vista Medical Center — the facility is closed and is used only for backup if the main jail in Bisbee becomes too crowded, Dannels said.
With a look of exasperation, Dannels says COVID-19 has added to the already difficult circumstances inherent at the Cochise County Jail with its aging interior and ongoing repairs.
“COVID-19 has really changed our society, how we behave, how we interact, how we socially engage,” Dannels said. “So you have all that going on and then you get arrested, now you’re in here and we have precautions higher than most.
“This year has been one of the worst since I’ve been sheriff,” he added. “And it seems like everyday it gets a little worse.”