Penzone, in a press conference on Wednesday, called the deaths "an overwhelming challenge" for the sheriff's office, which runs the county's five jails and a 512-bed intake facility. The deaths and overdoses come as the agency struggles to fill some 700 vacant detention officer positions.
The eight deaths were drug-related, according to the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner. With some medical examiner investigations still pending, Penzone said that the actual number of jail overdose deaths in 2023 is likely higher. He largely attributed the overdoses to fentanyl, though he did not provide specific information about the drugs involved in the cases.
In addition to the deaths, 200 people housed at the jail have been brought to the emergency room this year due to overdoses, he said. Detention officers and medical staff this year have also dispensed more than 396 doses of naloxone, an emergency treatment for opioid overdose often known by the brand name Narcan, Penzone said. The number is significantly higher than the number of ER transports as officers often administer multiple doses to resuscitate someone experiencing an overdose, Penzone added.
Penzone to release details about jail deaths
It's not just overdoses that are deadly, either. Recently, a man went into a coma and suffered severe brain damage after being tased by detention officers in the Fourth Avenue Jail. Suicides in the jails are common.
Currently, the office does not release figures about jail deaths on a regular basis. In January, New Times requested a list of all people who died in the jails in 2022 and documents about their deaths. The sheriff's office still has not provided that information.
Penzone said he plans to release information about jail deaths online, and a spokesperson for the office, Communications Director Norma Gutierrez, said more details will be available about the office's plans next week.
At the press conference, Penzone outlined ways the agency will address drug overdoses in the jails. New body scanners have been installed in all jails to monitor if staff members are bringing in drugs. Penzone said he also created a new K9 team to help sniff out drugs in the jails. "The hope is we will have every aspect of this particular unit fully functional by mid-to-late October," he said.
Whether these new policies will help reduce overdose deaths remains to be seen. At the conference, Penzone emphasized the systemic nature of the problem.
"The problems that occur in the jail system are really an extension of what is occurring in society," Penzone said.
Jail guard understaffing ‘detrimental’
The new figures highlight the significant challenges facing Maricopa County jails, which are also experiencing extreme understaffing. Thirty-eight percent of budgeted detention officer positions were vacant as of June — just 1,171 detention officer spots were filled out of 1,895 budgeted positions — with a significant number of nursing positions unfilled as well.
Detention officers have spoken out about the understaffing, calling it a "serious threat" to the safety of both staff and incarcerated people. Penzone acknowledged at the press conference, in response to questions from New Times, that the understaffing was "detrimental to operations."
"Any business or organization that is short-staffed — that means that those who exist do twice the work," he said. Penzone attributed the jail understaffing to the employment challenges facing law enforcement broadly and said that the office was doing its best to recruit new hires.