Jail oversight debated as sheriffs defend Utah system

Sunday , June 18, 2017 - 5:00 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

States with voluntary jail inspections are more vulnerable to lapses in suicide prevention, says a national consultant who has worked 37 years to help local governments limit deaths behind bars.

“They aren’t being really serious about it if the standards are voluntary,” said Lindsay Hayes, project director for the Maryland-based National Center of Institutions and Alternatives. “There’s a lot of self-policing going on and there’s really no objective way of ensuring that the policies are reflective of practices.”

ARCHIVE: Investigating jail deaths in Northern Utah

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association runs a voluntary jail inspection program for the state’s 29 counties. An association spokesman this week issued a statement vigorously defending the program as one that has passed legal muster for decades. The spokesman also criticized recent news coverage of the jail suicide issue as out of context and complained about statements by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah that local jails may need more regulation.

Suicide is a societal problem not limited to jails, and Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, argued Gary DeLand, a former Utah corrections director who heads the sheriffs’ association’s jail operations. He decried the “sudden interest in a problem which is hardly new and which has been grappled with for decades.”

However, scrutiny of jails is heightened because Utah has emerged as the problematic national leader in jail death rates, according to the most recent federal data available:

  • Average mortality rate per 100,000 jail inmates, 258 (2014).

  • Average suicide rate per 100,000 jail and state prison inmates, 42 (2013).

And data gathered by the Standard-Examiner this year shows the state in 2016 posted at least a 17-year high in jail deaths — 23, including 5 in Davis County alone.

Hayes said the national jail suicide rate was reduced to 36 per 100,000 inmates after a reform movement in the 1990s, but the total has risen to 50 per 100,000 in the most recent tracking. 

If inmate entry screening, staff training and policy enforcement are not kept at high levels, problems creep back in, Hayes said.

“You can have the best policies, but they’re worthless if you don’t reflect that in your practices,” he said in a phone interview.

One way to gauge whether a jail may have systemic problems is to look at its record of deaths over a five-year period, Hayes said.

From all causes, Davis had 10 deaths from 2012 through 2016, including 4 in 2013 and 5 last year. Weber had 18, including 4 in 2012, 4 the next year and 6 in 2014.

Horrific cases in the past year include Matthew Hall’s fatal head-first dive while on suicide watch in the Weber jail; Davis inmate and cancer patient Tracy Velarde’s suicide after being taken off pain medications; and Heather Miller’s death from a ruptured spleen after a reported fall from her Davis cell bunk. Questions also remain unanswered about the apparent drug withdrawal-related deaths of Marion Herrera in the Weber jail and Kara Noakes in Davis.

Asked about Utah’s jail deaths trend, Hayes said, “Unfortunately it may take a class action case and settlement that requires monitoring. It’s probably the only way that you’re going to be able to have practices that are reflective of policies.”

Of 600 provisions in the Utah Jail Standards, which the jails follow, 34 address suicide prevention, such as inmate screening, classification and medical review, DeLand said.

He panned the idea of creating an independent state jail inspection commission.

“If there is a belief that somehow the additional inspection layer would endow each and every jail officer with a level of clairvoyance that would prevent each and every inmate from attempting suicide, that belief is sadly mistaken,” he said.

Even if jailers could spend more time monitoring each inmate, “that would not mean that they could read the prisoner’s mind” to detect suicidal plans, DeLand said.

But at the same time, attempts to review jail operations often are met with resistance and refusal. The Utah Jail Standards are kept confidential by the Sheriffs’ Association, and county officials frequently refuse to release major parts of jail incident reports, citing litigation, jail security and inmate medical privacy concerns. 

Just this week, the Davis County Sheriff’s Office denied a public records request for jail inspection reports. 

The Weber County Sheriff’s Office did release Sheriffs’ Association reports of its jail operations. Weber’s jail got good reviews on topics such as kitchens, cleanliness, refrigerator temperature, and water and air temperatures, plus documentation and staff appearance. There were no references to suicide prevention operations, emergency medical care capacities or other life-or-death matters.

The state Department of Corrections inspects the Davis, Weber and Box Elder county jails because they house state inmates. Reports have been requested but have not yet been received.

DeLand said the 14 suicides in the Weber jail over 17 years “is not indicative of a general indifference to preventing inmate suicides,” considering an average of 13,000 inmates go through each year and that in Utah overall, there’s one suicide every 14 hours.

He said it’s unrealistic to expect that jailers “should be capable of accurately anticipating each and every inmate suicide attempt, despite the inability of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and mental health professionals to do so.”

But Hayes said jailers are the first line of suicide prevention because they spend the most time with inmates, who as a group are inherently at high risk of suicide. Nationally, for instance, male pretrial detainees attempt suicide 7.5 times more often than males in the general population, and sentenced prisoners have a rate almost 6 times greater.

“Even where screening for high-risk indicators is undertaken, there is often inadequate monitoring of prisoners’ distress levels and hence there is little chance of detecting acute risk,” Hayes added in a written statement. “Even if appropriate policies and procedures exist, overworked or untrained correctional, health care, and mental health personnel may miss the early warning signs of a suicide risk.”

Training of local jailers

Utah jailers must complete at least 40 hours of training each year, a requirement to maintain certification by the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Division. Many Weber deputies obtain 100 hours of training or more each year, said Lt. Nathan Hutchinson, training director for the Sheriff’s Office.

All training is documented per officer, he said. Regular training includes daily training briefs, mandatory quizzes, mock scenarios and updates on case law. Each year several key subjects are chosen for intensive training, such as suicide prevention and first aid and CPR.

After an inmate is placed on suicide watch in the Weber jail, he or she must be checked on in irregular increments about every 15 minutes, Hutchinson said, and the inmate is evaluated by a mental health professional at least within the first five hours.

Periods of high public attention after rashes of jail suicides sometimes result in only short-term improvements, Hayes said.

“That happens around the country,” he said. “There’s a suicide, everyone is very concerned, there’s an investigation and some kind of corrective action. Then for a short period there’s a reduction. But if there isn’t a continuation of those efforts, it doesn’t become permanent.”

Jails and inmates bear brunt of larger policies

Public policy failures at the federal and state levels are perhaps the biggest problem for local jails, said Sim Gill, Salt Lake County district attorney.

Utah’s jails are flooded with the mentally ill because adequate treatment is not available on the outside and they self-medicate with illegal drugs, he said. 

“Historically we have over-utilized and relied upon the criminal justice system,” Gill said. “If we wanted to address this in any substantial way we would look upstream at education, public health and housing.” 

The societal costs end up being paid at the most expensive place, the justice system, said Gill, who supports “therapeutic justice models” that emphasize treatment and court diversion for mentally ill suspects. 

“It’s not an accident that we jail more human beings than any country in the world,” he said. “Jail and prison warehousing is failed public policy.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.