Remarkably few prisoners die in the Weber County Jail

Friday , September 08, 2017 - 4:00 AM

TERRY THOMPSON, special to the Standard-Examiner

EDITOR’S NOTE: The penultimate paragraph of this column has been edited to correct incorrect numbers provided in the original column.

Much has been said about deaths that have occurred in the jail and some clarification in context is needed. We all agree that any untimely death is tragic. Everyone is a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, partner, or friend. Each and every individual entering the Weber County Correctional Facility is treated humanely, fairly, and as any of the staff would wish to be treated, even when that individual’s behavior is harsh, challenging, and in some cases, dangerous. 

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All individuals facing criminal charges of all types from minor infractions to the most heinous of murderers and abusers begin the judicial process in the local jail. Although we deal with individuals from all walks of life, it is fair to say that jail staff work around individuals who are the most at-risk in our society. Many of these individuals have spent years of hard living, both physically and mentally. The few yet tragic cases of death in our jail are at a remarkably low level considering the high risk encountered with those we house. On any given day, we are tasked with providing the safety and welfare of approximately 1,000 persons. Our staff takes this responsibility very seriously.

Correctional facility staff are highly trained and professional in their day-to-day operations. Paying close attention to detail and observing persons booked into our jail system is a continual and ongoing process.

Immediately upon entry into our facility, our staff ask a multitude of questions related to several aspects of a person’s life to ensure that as complete of a picture as possible is obtained as to each individual’s mental, emotional, and physical state. This process provides many of these individuals with the best medical and psychological treatment they have had in their lives.

Access to care is determined at the outset of entry and is routinely reassessed each day on multiple occasions. Licensed mental health professionals are available 24 hours a day. Our highly trained staff encounter attempts of self-harm on the part of incarcerated inmates almost daily. On an annual basis, we intervene in an inmate’s self-harming behavior nearly 300 times per year. These attempts at self-harm range from verbal affirmation that the individual has considered harming himself or herself to digging at their wrists with a plastic utensil, jumping off of a bed or platform, ramming themselves into solid objects, or attempted hangings. Tragically, we cannot stop every attempt, and a death in our custody is extremely hard on staff who take great pride in preventing harm.

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On a professional level, we experience many evaluations and audits of our jail standards, policies, and practices from multiple sources, to include The U.S. Department of Justice/US Marshal's Service, Utah State Department of Corrections, National Sheriffs’ Association, and the Utah Sheriffs’ Association. We pursue best practices set by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, National Institute of Jails, and the National Institute of Corrections. Weber County was one of the first jails in Utah to achieve recognition for successful completion of certification under the Utah Sheriffs’ Association Jail Standards. Since that time, the Utah jail standards have been adopted by the National Sheriffs’ Association and other states to achieve the safest and best practices in inmate custody and care.

We have booked more than 231,527 individuals into our Weber County Correctional Facility since 2000, and remarkably, only 31 inmates have died in our custody — 17 of which passed away from various medical problems and 14 from intentional self-harm, which equates to about 1/100th of a percent of those booked.

Although this is still a tragedy, by anyone's estimation, this is statistically remarkable. Clearly, our professional intervention practices, operations, and services have actually spared countless and immeasurable loved ones the tragedy of an untimely death.

Terry L. Thompson is the Weber County sheriff. Twitter: @WeberCoSheriff.

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