Deaths in Utah's county jails support advocates' zero fatalities goal

Sunday , July 24, 2016 - 9:24 AM9 comments

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Utah’s county jails have elaborate policies aimed at safeguarding sick or suicidal inmates, but a spate of deaths has fostered concerns about a shaky safety net for those who go behind bars.

Three 2016 fatalities are under investigation, one each in the Davis, Weber and Box Elder lockups. And data gathered from those jails, as well as the Utah Department of Corrections and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, underlines a stubbornly steady trend of in-custody deaths in recent years.

Among certain statistics:

  • Sixteen people died in Utah jails in 2013, the most since the federal agency began keeping the statistic in 2000.

  • Utah’s jail mortality rate was No. 3 nationwide.

  • Utah was No. 1 nationally in suicide mortality rate among state and federal prisoners, 2000-13.

  • The state was No. 4 in overall mortality rate per 100,000 inmates, trailing only Louisiana, West Virginia and Mississippi.

  • Thirteen people died in the Davis County Jail in 2005-16, all but two from suicide by hanging.

  • The Weber County Jail reported 19 jail deaths from 2009-16, an almost even mix of suicides and medical causes (data for deaths prior to 2009 was not available).

  • Box Elder County had 5 in-custody deaths from 2005-16, including three suicides by hanging.

Beyond the grim numbers, the adequacy of medical care and suicide prevention is being debated by state and county authorities, incarceration industry experts, civil libertarians and family members of the deceased.

“We have 13,000 people come through this jail every year, and a lot of them come in in bad shape as it is,” said Lt. Lane Findlay, spokesman for the Weber County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities are investigating the death of Marion Herrera, 41, who was booked into the Weber jail May 18 on suspicion of forgery and theft. Findlay said she was suffering from heroin withdrawals and was checked into the medical unit. She was found dead in a cell four days later.

“This is a good reason to always be looking at good opportunities to reduce detention,” said Anna Brower, spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. “Do you really need to put someone in jail for five days if you suspect they have been in possession of heroin?”

Brower said routing such offenders to detoxification is preferred.”

Gary DeLand, former executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, is now the chief policy consultant for the Utah Sheriffs Association and the state’s county jails. He said Utah’s jails are expected adhere to 600 requirements to ensure constitutional incarceration, including medical care.

The goal with health care behind bars, he said, is for jailers to “err on the side of caution — observe and report” to the medical staff. 

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This protects the jail legally and gets professional medical attention for the inmate, DeLand said.

“With any kind of medical issue, maybe they’re faking ... let the doctor sort it out,” he said.

For inmates who are on medication regimens outside of jail, it’s a tough balance between verification and urgency.

How the Davis jail staff sorted out Kara Noakes’ medical status is an open question. The family of the 46-year-old woman alleges the jail failed to provide her with blood pressure medication.

Noakes’ June 23 death is under investigation. She was arrested in Sunset after failing to pay a ticket for driving without insurance.

William Nelson, Noakes’ eldest son, said in a June 27 Standard-Examiner story that jail personnel refused to give his mother her blood pressure medication, even though he told them she could die without it.

Jail officials are not commenting on specifics of the Noakes case, but Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sgt. DeeAnn Servey said inmates are not allowed to take medicines they bring in with them or those that are delivered by a relative. The jail can’t tell whether the pills are what they seem to be, she said.

Jail nurses depend on the inmate to inform them of medicines they need, an intake nurse said during a tour of the medical unit. The nursing staff verifies existing prescriptions with the inmate’s doctor and pharmacy, then the jail doctor can write a prescription to be dispensed in jail. There’s an inevitable time lag, sometimes a day or two, the nurse said.

The ACLU’s Brower said she has discussed jail conditions with sheriffs around the state.

“They’re really clear the best that they can offer is the bare minimum required,” she said. They also say they don’t have the resources to do more, she said.

State policy makers should realize that for many people, being held in jail is not safe for their health, Brower said. She finds it disturbing that there’s little recognition or action to address the issue.

“The only acceptable goal for traffic fatalities is zero. It surprises me jails won’t have a similar approach. ...That is the obligation, constantly striving always to do better, so nobody loses a family member this way.”

State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said the Legislature is not oblivious to the problem. Ray chairs the House’s social services appropriations committee.

In-custody deaths are more likely because “you’re dealing with a very high-risk population,” Ray said. “As unfortunate as it is, it is going to happen.”

Ray said wider adoption of electronic medical records might help.

“A person arrested on a Saturday night, they may not have access to that individual’s medical records till Monday,” he said. But not enough medical providers participate, he said.

MENTAL HEALTH AND SUICIDE

Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson, interviewed Tuesday, said drug abuse-related problems among new inmates is an ongoing problem.

“Right now it’s fentanyl and heroin,” he said. 

That’s in addition to other mental health issues, which Richardson said is the most significant medical problem in the Davis jail — “there has been a gradual increase.”

Findlay said mental health problems and suicide “are a huge problem we deal with” in Weber’s jail.

Said Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office Jail Commander Sandy Huthman: “In-custody death is always one of my biggest fears.”

DeLand said it’s impossible to prevent all in-custody suicides.

“I hear experts I go against in court saying all victims want to be stopped.” DeLand said. “No, they don’t.”

He told of a case in which a young inmate killed himself an hour after he had a visit from his parents and sister, right after he laughed and joked with them, and spoke of plans of what he’d do when he got out.

“How can you defend against that? They knew he was suicidal at one point, but had also been told by the professionals that he was no longer suicidal,” DeLand said. “His health care went by the book, but he carefully disguised his intentions.”

Court decisions in jail suicide cases have established “we can only be held liable for having actually known, then failing to act on that knowledge,” DeLand said.

“We write policies that guide staff and carefully train people on suicide issues, the little things you look for, is an inmate really down, and call the health care people to take a closer look — anything at all the inmate complains about.

“We can’t save every inmate,” he said.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook.

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