On average, eight people are dying each year in the Pima County Jail. That’s what Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos told the Blue Ribbon Commission Thursday morning.

He says jail deaths are primarily the results of suicides and overdoses, but even so, Nanos says the aging facility is overwhelmed and understaffed, and that the solution should be a new jail. Exploring the feasibility for that potential new jail is a main goal of the commission.

For a group of protesters gathered outside the commission meeting Thursday, however, a new jail isn’t the solution. Tiera Rainey, executive director of the Tucson Bail Fund, questions how a new facility will reduce overdoses and medical emergencies.

“The idea that a new jail is fixing any of the problems that the sheriff continually is bringing forward is not actually a solution right? How is the new facility going to change the fact that there are people overdosing in the facility?” Rainey said to KGUN 9.

The commission, established earlier in the year to lay the groundwork for a potential new county jail, has been meeting since March to look into current jail conditions and future facility needs. Thursday’s meeting was its first with a public feedback session.

The coalition of protestersthe ‘No New Jail Coalition,’ with representatives from multiple community groups including No Jail Deaths, Splinter Collective, Tucson Bail Fund, and the Tucson Alliance for Housing Justicerallied prior to the commission with a press conference, bringing a message more focused on justice system reform than facility upgrades.

The coalition thinks the potential $400 million project could be better spent on communityinvesting in projects like housing instead, with some saying the county should do away with a jail altogether.

“Yes, we believe there should be no jail,” a spokesperson for Trans Queer Pueblo told KGUN 9. “We believe in investing in community and resources and making sure that everyone gets their needs met, and making sure that we have a support system when we’re in pain rather than being placed in jail.”

In years past, Nanos says the jail housed 1300 inmates. That number has grown in recent years to 1700, a contributing factor to the jail’s current woes.

“Give me a sign, I’d protest with then. I don’t want deaths in that jail either,” Nanos told KGUN 9 in an interview today. He’s been vocal since first approaching the Pima County Board of Supervisors over jail conditions in late 2022, calling the conditions inside “deplorable” for both workers and inmates.

But for Nanos, embracing the radical change some protesters are calling for isn’t the answer.

“The idea that you cannot have a jail or you should not have a jail…is a little naive. I wish there were no jails…no need for jails,” Nanos said. “But that’s not for the sheriff to call.”

Overall, Nanos tells us he is not commenting on the commission’s findings until they make their final report. He has, in his report to the commission, outlined similar concerns to what some protesters had to say today, taking issue with a large number of inmates with mental health or drug addictions waiting up to seven months in jail for a hearing.

Nanos says he’d prefer to see inmates coping with mental illnesses waiting for their hearings while receiving treatment in appropriate clinics. It’s one of the topics the commission is diving intoand a question the No Jail Deaths coalition is raising as well.

“How is that [potential new jail] addressing the fact that we have had issues with medical care in that jail for years? None of those things will change with a brand new building,” Rainey said.

The September meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission is yet to be scheduled. You can read summaries from previous sessions, as well as submit public comment, on the Pima County website.