Reporter: Claire Doan
TUCSON (KGUN-TV): It’s considered the best place for the worst people: thieves, gang bangers, rapists, murderers – all on lockdown at the Pima County Jail. And they are constantly devising new ways to escape or commit crimes from behind bars. So 9 On Your Side got a rare look at how guards use technology and their own savvy to ensure security at the jail and safety for the community.
Some of the inmates at the jail are no doubt dangerous and manipulative. Many of them are conscience-free. So it’s surprising that it – of all places – is Lieutenant Sean Stewart, the Tower Commander, said he tries to treat everyone with dignity.
“It can be a psychologically dark place sometimes, but [not] if you’re working for the right reasons, if you’re here to ensure the community is safe,” said Stewart said.
But the first priority is keeping inmates in check. The first line of defense is intake –involving fingerprinting, booking, a security canner and a drug scanner. The latter can detect even traces from cross contamination like touching money. Depending on the nature of the offense or what is found through the scanners, the potential inmate undergoes a pat search, strip search or cavity search. From there, the monitoring begins: officers are placed inside the housing units for direct supervision.
“If a fight does break out, the officers are instantaneously there to quell the fight,” Stewart said, adding that they work in tandem with technology. “A lot of times, these cameras have helped us and we’ll go out there and we’ll find knives, syringes or drugs – something that was missed.”
Officers monitor the jail through a dark room, where they control the opening and closing of each door. Therefore, an inmate being able to escape one area doesn’t mean he can leave the next.
“It’s pretty secure. There are cameras everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. I haven’t seen a blind spot since I’ve been here,” said inmate Frankie Rodriguez.
From behind bars, inmates get creative, orchestrating criminal dealings. And so the jail tracks everything non-privileged, including visitations (which are more like video conferences), phone conversations and emails. Everything is recorded, monitored and kept.
“Every time we figure it out they try and change so everyday is a new day. You just can’t come to work and say, ‘I know it all,’” Stewart said.
But monitoring not as simple as scanning or listening to phone calls. Inmates learn new languages or even speak in code, which means jail staff have to be more alert and learn as much – if not more – than inmates do.
“What they’re talking about: ‘White t-shirts’ was cocaine and ‘black t-shirts’ was heroine. They’ll use a code for football teams: ‘Miami fans’ means marijuana and ‘Colts’ means they wanted cocaine,’” Steward explained.
But for all their effort that goes into communicating from a jail, or finding a way to get out – why not just stop yourself from committing crime that would land you back in jail?
“The majority of us have a superman complex, it’s not going to happen to us,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of cats who are out on the streets – gangs and stuff life that – this is what they’re raised for. This is what they’re bred for.”
While some inmates may be bred for street cred, Stewart said it’s those career criminals that are his biggest challenge – the ones who consider time outside of jail a mere vacation.
“You’re not going to change it. All you can do in this facility is to make sure this guy – the guy that believes he can influence the 19-year-old and try to recruit them in that organization – as far away from each other as they can,” Steward said.
And so the Pima County jail is where, ironically, seeing the dark side of humanity day in and day out, makes you still have faith that some people can change if and once they get out of here.
But they won’t do it by escaping.