The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office is beginning to fix some of the poor conditions and lack of training found in a recent inspection of its 2½-year-old jail.
And one of the problems, a deficient heating and air-conditioning system, has put at risk an $11 million-a-year contract to house inmates for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Some of the findings from the inspection conducted Jan. 17-18 by the county’s insurance provider, Arizona Counties Insurance Pool, are: The jail is not secure, the staff lacked training, building maintenance was neglected and some of the mechanical systems of the building were deficient.
“There are many concerning or troubling findings in terms of operations and in terms of facilities,” Sheriff Paul Babeu said. “Some of the concerns that we have are not overwhelming, but they are concerning.”
Babeu said he asked for the inspection, and he and his jail managers have already addressed many of the issues. They are either in the process of addressing other problems or drawing up plans to address them.
According to the 64-page report, the 1,504-bed jail, which opened in July 2006, is “not a secured facility” and the “perimeter is easily breached without exertion of effort.”
“I don’t know if it’s as egregious as they were saying,” said James Kimball, chief of the jail.
Kimball, who was hired by Babeu after the sheriff won election in November, said he would like to see the perimeter fence higher, but an inmate would have to get through four barriers just to get to the fence.
Kimball said he would also like to see razor wire added to the fence, but that, along with raising the height, would cost a lot of money and time.
“We’re looking at that right now,” Babeu said.
Bill Hardy, executive director of the Arizona Counties Insurance Pool, said most of the security problems are easily fixed.
For instance, Kimball said staff no longer parks vehicles near the fence or leaves doors that should be locked propped open.
The agency is also seeking a vendor with expertise in maintaining closed-circuit surveillance systems. Kimball said the work is done by county maintenance workers and information technology workers, but the jail needs people with expertise in surveillance systems to maintain it.
Getting the heating and air-conditioning systems fixed is one of the top priorities.
Babeu said the system is working at capacity and there were areas in the jail that were 75 or 80 degrees in February.
Babeu said his agency is seeking proposals from engineering firms to assess the air, plumbing and electrical systems.
“It is apparent the infrastructure of these facilities are not adequate for this climate and this part of the country,” Babeu said.
The jail becomes unbearable in the summer, not only risking the welfare of the inmates and staff, but putting the ICE contract at risk.
Kimball said ICE has made known its concerns that the jail conditions aren’t up to national standards and came “close” to pulling some of its inmates out at one time.
“That would be a great disservice to the county because that contracts helps and assists in paying the debt service of this jail expansion,” Kimball said.
Vinnie Picard, ICE spokesman in Phoenix, said in an e-mailed statement that his agency is working with Pinal County “to address any issues regarding adherence to ICE’s National Detention Standards.”
Babeu said basic housekeeping and maintenance of the building had been neglected, and now inmates are put to work to keep the place clean.
Babeu said the staff was also missing some of the basic training.
The report said 90 percent of the officers had no first-aid training, and when it came to fire safety there was no evacuation plan.
Extinguishers were used to prop open doors and officers carried so many keys they couldn’t find the correct ones in a hurry, the report stated.
Hardy said inadequate fire safety could result in a “catastrophic lawsuit.”
Every officer will be required to attend 40 hours of training a year to keep up the skills they learned in the academy.
Three detention officers have also been certified to teach first-aid and they will teach it to the rest of the staff.
Babeu said he will be asking the Board of Supervisors for financial approval Wednesday to reorganize the management structure of the jail to allow for more supervision.
Hardy said he believes the problems came about because jail managers had been preoccupied with the opening of the building.