MCSO’s Paul Penzone aiming to curb ‘devastation’ of fentanyl in jails

Apr 26, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 11:51 am

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone believes there’s a fentanyl problem in his jails and plans to take a proactive approach to curbing it.

He said the opioid is the most prominent drug entering jails, with its effects deadly.

Inmate deaths have increased from 19 in 2020 to 43 in 2022, with more than a third of those deaths drug-related last year.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing more deaths because we have more people in custody, but there’s other factors and one of the most influential one I want to speak to is fentanyl,” Penzone said.

“The devastation of the drug, not just that it takes life, but it breaks life.”

The drug is also contributing to the amount of suicide deaths within his jails, Penzone said.

He says some inmates who tried to commit suicide told MCSO they did it because the withdrawal symptoms from fentanyl were so intense and painful.

“They saw suicide as a way to avoid that suffering, that it was a better option for them and that in itself is concerning,” Penzone said.

Fentanyl making its way into Maricopa County jails has also led to an increase in Narcan administered.

In 2021, 117 individuals were administered the overdose nasal spray.

That number jumped to 172 in 2022 and four months into 2023, sits at 93 individuals receiving the life-saving drug.

“It’s not just one hit of Narcan, sometimes its two, three or four because the drug is so powerful,” Penzone said.

Penzone said if fentanyl in jails doesn’t decrease, MCSO will have a difficult year ahead of them.

The sheriff said he has already commissioned his chief financial officer to create four new positions using existing detention officers who will be trained to become canine deputies.

“Their sole responsibility will be to stay in the jail full-time with canines who are trained specifically for scent of drugs,” Penzone said.

He also started a task force that he meets with weekly that looks at the potential measures and resources available to the agency to stop drugs from getting in.

Penzone previously announced he would implement body scanners for staff to go through after one of his own was arrested for allegedly trying to bring drugs into the jails, which he said was met with concern.

Those scanners are expected to be functional in jails soon.

Another tactic already underway is what Penzone calls “aggressive searches” of inmate pods. He explained MCSO will send in a SWAT team, special response team, detention officers and K-9s to secure the inmates in one location before searching for contraband.

“We will turn over ever mattress, every personal item, everything inside that area searching for drugs,” Penzone said.

“What we’re trying to do is make people so uneasy with the fact that it could occur that you’re less apt to try and hide something,” Penzone said.

He said this has been a regular and effective part of the department’s routine.

Penzone hopes to expand the number of searches being done, but needs the staffing levels to implement it.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, MCSO had 30 vacancies and was nearing 100% staffing. Now, there are 600 vacancies with a growing inmate population.

“COVID hit and we weren’t able to run academies or recruit and do some other things and a lot of folks just decided that environment was not healthy for them and their families and they chose to resign,” Penzone said.

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MCSO’s Paul Penzone aiming to curb ‘devastation’ of fentanyl in jails