Mesa City Jail can only hold high-priority offenders - East Valley Tribune: News

Mesa City Jail can only hold high-priority offenders

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Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2007 6:03 am | Updated: 5:50 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The phone rings and jail supervisor Dan Padia switches on his surveillance monitors and looks up.

“We have a combative,” he says.

A black and white patrol cruiser pulls forward and an officer leads a stumbling, handcuffed man from the car.

It’s only 8:30 p.m. in the Mesa City Jail, but the prisoners are already filing in: a man with marijuana, an angry drunk, a rough-looking woman covered in bruises and a man with a blood-stained shirt.

“If everyone brought up everyone they could, (the jail) would be filled up,” said Mesa police Sgt. Rob Campbell.

Instead, officials only book the prisoners who are of highest priority, such as domestic violence and felony suspects and warrant arrests.

Most suspects with DUIs and minor crimes must be cited and released.

But it’s often hard to squeeze in even the people who need to be locked up, officials said.

The approximately 30-year-old jail, located in downtown Mesa at 130 N. Robson, has a capacity of 27, but serves as the only holding facility for a city of nearly half a million residents.

By comparison, the city of Tempe uses a jail the same size as Mesa’s despite a population that’s only about one-third the size.

Tempe also occasionally holds some of the inmates that Mesa’s facility can’t fit, police said.

“You can only have so many in there, liability-wise and safety-wise,” said acting Mesa police Cmdr. Steve Stahl.

And that’s concerning officials who worry the lack of space will become even more serious as Mesa’s CompStat crime-fighting program leads to more arrests in the city.

“If CompStat is done right, it should increase bookings,” Stahl said. “It should cost the taxpayers money. The price of fighting crime is not going down. The chief wants us to book everyone we can.”

But the jail’s size isn’t the only problem. It’s also the location.

Since the city has only one jail, officers who patrol east Mesa must drive as much as 30 miles round trip to drop off prisoners after making an arrest.

By the time the officers complete paperwork and book the prisoner into the jail, “it’s two or three hours before they’re back on the road,” said Mesa city councilman Mike Whalen.

The delay means fewer officers patrolling the streets as they make regular commutes across the city to the holding facility.

Mesa police prefer to call their jail a holding facility, since officials do not keep prisoners longer than 24 hours.

“A lot of times it gets hectic, especially at nighttime,” Padia said while walking through the facility. “We try to do the best we can, but we’re just limited on space.”

While waiting for a judge, the suspects are divided by gender and placed in groups in cells. At busy times, they lie on the floor, sit on benches or stand up and look out the glass window that’s used in place of bars.

It’s crowded, but it’s all the city has.

“There are ideas being explored, but expansion may not be an option,” Stahl said. “We know the resistance we met last time with the residents.”

Whalen said in the late 1990s, police looked into building a holding facility in the north parking lot of the main building, but could not get support from the community.

The issue also came up when Chief George Gascón stepped into the department nearly a year ago.

“The historic neighborhood association got really concerned about it,” Whalen said.

Some residents worried that criminals would be released into their neighborhoods, while others didn’t even know a jail exists near their houses.

But the dangers of a small jail put everyone at risk, officials said.

Detention supervisor Tom Hill, who has worked at the jail for 13 years, said fights can erupt when the male cells become too crowded.

“When they’re drunk at night and someone sleeps on the floor, someone trips over them and a fight gets going,” Hill said. “We have to be very careful when it gets busy because guys like their space.”

And even in the control room, there isn’t too much space.

Detention officers turn sideways to maneuver past one another as they slide paperwork throughout a rectangular room.

“The personnel in the jail are doing such a good job shuffling,” Stahl said. “It’s a very busy place.”

Whalen said the city is looking at conducting a study into the issue of holding prisoners and the current jail system.

Currently, the department sends all its felony suspects to Maricopa County’s jails, but the cost is steep for the cashstrapped city: $189.23 per inmate booking and $72.33 per day.

And while officials have explored other ideas, a solution isn’t coming anytime soon.

“The new court building is being approved, but how does that affect us? It doesn’t,” Stahl said.

As the city continues to grow, the city needs a facility on the east side, Whalen said.

He added, “With the jailing costs rising with the county, we really need to do a study and look at doing our own jailing.”

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