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A legislative priority: Open, effective and enforceable Utah jail standards

Sunday , January 21, 2018 - 4:30 AM1 comment


The Utah Legislature begins Monday, Jan. 22, and ends March 8.

That’s not a lot of time, so we’ll state our case as simply as possible — no matter what else happens this session, Utah needs to begin passing laws that lay the groundwork for open, effective and enforceable jail standards.

Because, as the numbers show, the voluntary standards developed by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association do not work.

  • RELATED: “Utah's secret jail standards do nothing to protect prisoners”

Utah is a state of 3 million people. Yet in 2014, it led the nation in per capita jail deaths, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The deaths were only starting.

In 2016, according to a Standard-Examiner survey, 24 people died in Utah jails — the highest total in at least 17 years.

And the state did nothing.

Utah does not require its jails to meet minimum requirements for prisoner health and safety; instead, it defers to county sheriffs, who operate according to voluntary standards developed by Gary DeLand, a consultant for the Utah Sheriffs’ Association.

DeLand insists his work is proprietary, so even though Utah jails are funded with public tax money and hold prisoners on our behalf, as a government responsibility, we can’t see the standards sheriffs employ. We cannot assess their effectiveness of those standards or evaluate if they’re being correctly applied.

State law allows jails to operate in secret, and they do; sheriffs do not report in-custody deaths to county commissioners, state lawmakers or the public because the law does not compel it.

The public cannot hold sheriffs accountable for deaths intentionally shielded by DeLand’s jail standards.

But now we know that in 2016, two dozen prisoners died in Utah jails. We know a quarter of those deaths occured in a single jail — Davis County.

And we know the Davis County Jail only briefly failed to meet jail standards in 2016, apparently for reasons unrelated to its string of prisoner deaths.

  • RELATED: “State: Davis jail out of compliance in 2016 inspection”

Both Davis County and the Utah Department of Corrections refused to say what standards the jail violated. But Jerry Pope, a DOC spokesman, brushed them off as trivial.

“In the grand scheme of things, they (the noncompliance findings) are on the very lower end of the spectrum. No life safety issues were out of compliance,” Pope told Mark Shenefelt, a reporter for the Standard-Examiner.

If the Davis County Jail met DeLand’s safety standards even as three prisoners hanged themselves in eight weeks, those standards are meaningless.

Sen. Todd Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican, plans a bill requiring jails to annually report in-custody deaths to the state. That’s a start. If it passes, at least it allows the lawmakers to weigh the death toll once a year.

  • RELATED: “State may demand death reports from jails, prisons”

But it’s not enough. Jail deaths need to be reported in real time, so the public can hold sheriffs accountable as inmates die — not react to data that’s a year old.

Because as long as state lawmakers defer to Utah sheriffs, public pressure is the only way to protect the safety of jail prisoners.

Cynics say if you’re in jail, you get what you deserve. Prisoners made their choices. Dying in jail is the price they pay.

Look at “Dying behind bars,” the special report in today’s Standard-Examiner. It lists all 51 prisoners who’ve died in Northern Utah jails since 2005. More than half — 32 — had not been convicted of the charges for which they’d been arrested. They died awaiting trial.

No one deserves that.

And when prisoners die under those circumstances, it invites expensive lawsuits. Ultimately, we all bear the cost when a prisoner’s family sues the county.

As Kara Noakes’ family did. She died June 21, 2016, in the Davis County Jail.

As Heather Ashton Miller’s mother did. She died Dec. 21, 2016, in the Davis County Jail.

As Marion Herrera’s family did. She died May 22, 2016, in the Weber County Jail.

Utah lawmakers don’t have much time. No matter what else happens between now and March 22, they need to begin the process of replacing the sheriffs’ secret and ineffective jail standards.

EDITOR’S NOTE: State prisons operated by the Utah Department of Corrections are required to meet National Commission on Correctional Health Care standards for prisoner health. Originally, this editorial stated that Utah does not require its prisons or jails to meet minimum requirements for health and safety. It has been corrected. The Standard-Examiner regrets the error. 

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