Penzone: Don’t open new jail, use it to treat COVID-19 patients




    An artist's rendering of Maricopa County's new jail and intake facility, which is scheduled to open in April 2020. Image courtesy Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

    Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is asking that a new $185 million jail intake and jail facility in south Phoenix not open as scheduled, and that it instead be considered by public health officials as a space for temporary care and treatment of COVID-19 patients.

    In a letter, Penzone wrote that the new facility, which is replacing the Durango jail and aims to transform and streamline how the county processes and detains inmates, is designed “in direct conflict with health recommendations by the CDC to suppress the outbreak of COVID-19.”

    The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said the letter was sent to “county governmental partners and stakeholders,” but would not tell Arizona Mirror which entities received the letter without a public records request.

    The facility, near 27th Avenue and Lower Buckeye Road, is designed around the idea of “direct supervision,” which places a deputy desk in a monitoring position of an open space as opposed to placing defendants in individual cells. The goal is to reduce anxiety and foster more interaction between jail staff and inmates, promoting relationships to reduce violence. 

    But because COVID-19, which is caused by the new coronavirus, is spread through proximity, that method of inmate supervision presents dangers to both jail staff and inmates.

    “Due to these factors and concerns I strongly oppose opening the facility at this time as I feel the detriments and complications would by far outweigh the long term benefit we would see for the organization and the county,” Penzone wrote.

    The facility, which also includes four on-site courtrooms and a central intake facility to replace the 4th Avenue jail in downtown Phoenix, was scheduled to open in April. Penzone wrote that the county should work with the Arizona Department of Health Services and a major hospital system “to meet the needs of a temporary hospital facility” to treat COVID-19 patients.

    Penzone added that, although he hopes the facility wouldn’t need to be used as a make-shift health care facility, “we are in the infancy stages of an extreme pandemic unlike any health crisis our generation has faced.”

    “We do not have the luxury to hope for a positive outcome as we are in the business of public health and public safety,” he said.

    Jim Small
    Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.