With Max Toledo's death, the need for Utah jail reform becomes more urgent

Sunday , August 13, 2017 - 4:30 AM


The death toll in Utah jails increased by one this week. But not the figure for 2017.

Max Toledo, a prisoner in the Davis County Jail, hanged himself Aug. 26, 2016. He never regained consciousness, dying two days later in a nearby hospital.

A year later, Toledo’s family publicly documented his suicide.

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The number of Utah in-custody jail deaths last year is no longer 23. It’s 24. And in Davis County, it’s six.

With the news of every death, the need for Utah jail reform grows more urgent.

Utah leads the nation in per-capita jail deaths at 258 per 100,000 prisoners, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Eleven jail inmates died in 2012. Two years later, the number reached 19 — an increase of nearly 73 percent.

But that was nothing compared to 2016.

The latest Justice Department numbers cover 2000 to 2014. According to data collected by Mark Shenefelt, a reporter for the Standard-Examiner, 23 prisoners died last year in Utah jails — the most since state and federal agencies started tracking in-custody deaths in 2000.

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Or so we thought.

We did not learn about Toledo’s suicide for a year, and then only from his family, because Utah law does not require jails to announce in-custody deaths. Toledo’s death brings the 2016 total to 24, and a fourth of those prisoners died in the Davis County Jail.

That’s not what Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson wants you to believe, however. Before emergency responders loaded Toledo into an ambulance Aug. 26, 2016, the jail released him with a promise to appear in court.

Toledo didn’t die in the jail, so Richardson didn’t include him in Shenefelt’s request for a list of prisoners who died in custody. It’s the same approach Richardson tried with Heather Ashton Miller.

Miller suffered a blunt force trauma in her cell Dec. 21, 2016 — a blow so powerful that it nearly tore her spleen in half. She died that night at Ogden’s McKay-Dee Hospital.

“She did not die in our custody,” Sgt. DeeAnn Servey said in a January statement to the Standard-Examiner.

Richardson did not inform Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings of Miller’s death. Nor did he alert Rawlings about the death of prisoner Dominic Landreth.

Landreth, 20, hanged himself Aug. 22, 2016 — four days before Toledo.

When a prisoner dies in an accident or commits suicide, Davis County Sheriff’s office policy requires notification of the county attorney. But at least twice, that didn’t happen in 2016.

Utah does not require independent jail inspections. It allows the Utah Sheriffs’ Association to inspect its jails on a voluntary basis, using secret standards.

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When the Utah Department of Corrections reviewed the Davis County Jail in 2016, it found the jail out of compliance with minimum USA standards.

Did it have anything to do with four prisoner hanging deaths in 2016? Or was it because staff scrubbed all evidence of Miller’s injury and treatment before investigators arrived at the jail?

We don’t know. The state and the jail refuse to say, claiming the DOC jail inspection is a protected record.

Jerry Pope, Utah director of prison operations, suggested the failed inspection wasn’t tied to any of the jail’s six in-custody deaths, or in Miller’s case, to the way jailers interfered with a potential crime scene.

“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 Shenefelt.

Which is troubling. Because if a single jail amasses a quarter of the state’s in-custody deaths, scrubs a possible crime scene, fails to inform the county attorney of two fatalities and still meets minimum requirements, the sheriffs’ Utah Jail Standards are meaningless.

Utah jail reform starts with rigorous independent inspections and mandatory public reporting. That includes in-custody deaths, which must be immediately shared with county attorneys and the public. And any inmate fatality resulting from injury at a county jail counts as an in-custody death, no matter where the prisoner dies.

Without those reforms, Utahns cannot hold sheriffs responsible for the safety of their prisoners.

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