BISBEE — “This ain’t a Disney wish. This is a reality.”
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels spoke frankly about an issue which will come to the voters — the need for a tax-district to raise money for the county jail.
“Our jail needs immediate attention,” he said.
Over the next few months, residents will hear a lot about the request to form a jail district in order to deal with the myriad of issues staff and prisoners face every day because of lack of funds.
Dannels and the county Board of Supervisors will determine over the coming weeks whether it is better to invest in the existing jail or move forward and build a new jail. In either case, the jail district is crucial to the plan as is a half-cent sales tax.
Unlike the existing half–cent sales tax which continues in perpetuity, if the district is approved by the voters, the supervisors will add a sunset clause ending it in 25 years. All funds raised through the tax will exclusively fund the jail system.
The sales tax would be paid by everyone living in, visiting or going through Cochise County, adding no burden to property taxpayers. Dannels and Supervisors Peggy Judd, Ann English and Tom Borer have said they think it’s the best way to bring the jail up to industry standards.
Existing jail issues
“The biggest issue right now is plumbing,” according to Kenny Bradshaw, jail commander.
The water in Bisbee is known for its harshness on water pipes and after 35 years, leaks have sprouted and valves have become corroded. The toilets and basins also need replacement. Parts for the out-of-date models of hyginene appliances are next to impossible to find, but he can order custom-made kits to keep up with repairs. Eventually, “every single one” will have to be replaced, Bradshaw said.
Dannels noted, “We’re dealing with $6,000 to $7,000 a month just in repair costs.”
Turns out some prisoners have nothing better to do than clog up a toilet, with whatever they can find including clothing, towels, even oranges. Bradshaw recounted inmates flushing entire rolls of toilet paper which end up backing up sewer lines. “They just put the end in the toilet and flush and flush and flush until the roll is gone.”
Jail cells have to be repainted frequently due to vandalism. Graffiti on the walls is also a problem and has created layer upon layer of paint on the walls, Dannels explained. Add in repairs for the the outdated heat and air conditioning system and the replacement of hot water heaters, which increase the annual costs for maintenance.
With the water leaks, staff also deals with mold in certain areas, Bradshaw said. That problem cannot be resolved until the pipes are fixed, which he wishes was sooner than later.
As technology has progressed, the jail has attempted to keep up, he said. Unfortunately, most all of it has been retrofitted and makeshift wiring for electronics, utilities and fiber optics are exposed in the corridors.
New security technology, more space and more staffing for the jail are needed to provide a safe place to work for the guards and a safe place to do time for the inmates, they said.
“Like any other 35-year-old building, repairs are necessary,” said Dannels. “And we’re not like other county buildings who work eight to five every day . This is a non-stop use building and that is 24/7/365.”
In addition to facility upkeep, Dannels and Bradshaw also must attend to prisoners’ behavioral health issues. The county does not have on-site medical professionals at the jail, which has become a serious and costly problem. Prisoners may run out of their medication and suffer relapses. There is also a need for assistance with drug abuse and addiction.
“The majority of the people who come to our jail have medical issues,” Dannels said. “We have to address their needs and sometimes these folks get the best medical attention in our jail.”
Officers may have to transport such individuals to a medical facility in Tucson or even Phoenix, and the county has to pick up the tab. In order to make the trips, off–duty deputies are often called in to fill the gap, costing the county more money for overtime.
Pre–trial competency hearings, which may need to be done out of town at a cost of $40,000 a person, are also a drain on funds. They want to provide the service onsite at the jail.
Dannels revealed some of the prisoners are upset because they were arrested and they act out in numerous ways, some more harmful than others, particularly if they have mental health issues.
He said there are inmates who do not care about the jail or their cells. Sometimes, they do not care about themselves.
Cleanup is hard on staff and unfortunately some “just burn out,” making turnover a problem. Jail staff do get a basic mental heath care education, but they are not trained to handle the severity of the disorders of many of those who end up in the facility, Bradshaw said.
“With the state of our mental health system in Arizona, more and more of our mentally ill are ending up in jail,” he added. “We don’t have a proper way to deal with this portion of our population. We want to provide them with medical care, so we need full-time medical professionals.”
New jail, more staff
“We are able to adequately take care of the people in our jail now, but we want to do a better job,” Dannels said.
Dannels recently visited a new jail in Yuma, with operations funded through a jail district tax, and has some good ideas.
However, a new jail is a longer–term goal. The half–cent sales tax would not bring in enough money to build a new jail outright, Dannels said. Such a high dollar project would require a loan. Money from the collection of sales tax could be used to make payments on a new facility, cover regular maintenance and pay for onsite medical professionals and additional guard staff.
“Our job is not to punish people,” Dannel said. “We’re here to safeguard them and fulfill judicial orders. We have a respect-based culture. That is, follow the rules and we’ll get through it very well. And, that’s the norm down there. I’m proud of our staff. The public has long been a supporter of the sheriff’s office. Now, I need support more than ever.”