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N4T Investigators: In-custody deaths continue to rise nationwide

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TUCSON (KVOA) - There have been six deaths at the Pima County Jail since January. The causes, however, vary.

Six deaths have been recorded in eight months, according to officials.

A retired jail commander told News 4 Tucson that it's not just an issue in Pima County, but around the country. In Pima County, Sheriff Chris Nanos explained that each case must be looked at individually.

"Some of the deaths at the jail have, in my eyes, been preventable. Some have not," Nanos said.

Jail officials said on Jan. 18, Jesus Aguilar Figueroa was jailed on charges including child molestation and sexual abuse. Reports later declared that Figueroa died of COVID-19.

Three days later on Jan. 21, Norberto Medican Beltran was arrested for child abuse and aggravated DUI, among other charges. He also died of COVID-19.

On May 31, Justin Crook who was in for a parole violation died after 24 hours of a drug overdose after getting booked.

On June 4, Jack Dixon died by suicide. He was facing three felony charges.

On July 21, Weldon Ellis who's charges included identity theft, died of natural causes.

Patino Cruz, facing failure to appear in court and burglary charges also died of natural causes on Aug. 3.

The numbers of in-custody deaths in the last four years are as listed:

  • 2017 - Six
  • 2018 - Nine
  • 2019 - Five
  • 2020 - Eight

This year so far, there have been six deaths with four months left in the year.

Sean Stewart worked at Pima County Jail for nearly 30 years. He retired six months ago and now travels the country consulting.

"I'm hired frequently on in-custody deaths, whether it be suicide, or natural causes or drug overdoses," Stewart said.

When asked why he thought there has been an increase of deaths nationwide, Stewart said that "it's a national trend."

"I believe people are getting booked in a lot unhealthier than they used to be," he added.

Stewart also said the overdose deaths are an issue.

"I don't know if that's because of the strength of the drugs that they're using on the streets or what's going on," he said. "But, I don't think this is just zero doubt in Pima County Jail. I think this is a national issue, it's a national crisis."

Sherriff Nanos said it's a crisis that needs to be addressed and believes one in-custody death is one too many.

Officials are working with mental health and medical providers as well as prosecutors to address this issue.

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Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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