State may demand death reports from jails, prisons

Sunday , November 19, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Prompted by a series of deaths in its jail, the Davis County Sheriff’s Office has updated its policies governing inmate suicide prevention and screening of mental health and drug withdrawal risks.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Utah Senate Judiciary Committee says he is working on a bill that would require county jails and the state’s prisons to submit annual reports on jail deaths, the handling of opioid drugs, and lists of medications that jails refuse to administer.

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Davis Sheriff Todd Richardson in a recent interview said his office began a review of policies and procedures after several deaths in the summer of 2016. Those deaths, plus a fatal injury suffered by an inmate in December, triggered heavy public scrutiny of the Davis jail and other lockups around the state.

“When all of this started happening, we looked at what was going on,” Richardson said. “And with our changes, this year, it stopped.”

Changes include more elaborate specifications and requirements during the process of screening people upon arrival at the jail; additional training and procedural direction for nurses and jailers; and a policy section warning personnel against any “deliberate indifference” to the health and safety of inmates.

Emergency medical technician training is being given to some jailers, so first-line EMT service will be on hand during emergencies, Richardson said. And outside EMTs and ambulance crews dispatched to the jail during medical emergencies will be given quicker access through jail security, he said.

Investigators of the death of Heather Miller, 28, who died of a ruptured spleen suffered in the jail Dec. 21, 2016, reported numerous shortcomings in the response. The Utah Attorney General’s Office conducted a criminal investigation but declined to file charges, saying any negligence did not rise to the level of criminal conduct. A separate Weber County investigation determined the Davis jail spoiled the crime scene before detectives could see it.

Reports on four Davis jail suicides in the summer said several inmates and jail personnel noticed disquieting behavior by some of the victims, and policies requiring that supervisors be told of such oddities were not followed.

“We’ve made a lot of adjustments and named some new captains,” including a new jail commander in January, the sheriff said. “We needed to break up group-think.”

At least 24 deaths involving Utah jails occurred in 2016, a 17-year high, according to records gathered by the Standard-Examiner.

And while U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows Utah is the national leader in county jail deaths per capita, state law is silent on the subject of jail inspections and oversight.

But a few things are happening now at the state level that may result in more jail and prison transparency, if not direct involvement in local operations.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said in a Friday interview he will introduce a bill that would require county jails and state prisons to submit to the executive branch and the Legislature annual reports of deaths behind bars. Correctional entities send similar reports to the federal government already, “but we have to wait two years to see it, so that’s silly.”

“We are also interested in what policies there are on opioids,” Weiler said, “and we’re also interested in a list of any prescription drugs they’re refusing to administer to inmates.” 

Jails cite the risk of drug smuggling among inmates as a reason to keep opioid and drug withdrawal medications out of the facilities, but relatives of inmates say it sometimes results in severe and even fatal drug withdrawal incidents behind bars.

Weiler and other lawmakers met recently with Gary DeLand, keeper of the Utah Jail Standards, which are used by county jails and the Utah Department of Corrections to govern jail operations in a manner backed by case law.

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association and DeLand have been criticized for not making the standards public. Deland’s company, DeLand and Associates, owns the standards. He said they are a trade secret and their release would heighten jail security risks and civil liabilities.

Weiler said, however, DeLand has agreed to give lawmakers access to software that controls the standards “so we can go in and do research” for use in possible jail and prison legislation. The agreement prohibits legislators from making the standards information public “or giving it to the media,” Weiler said.

The Davis jail flunked an inspection in late 2016, but the county and the state denied public records requests for details of the shortcomings.

Weiler said the jails’ desire to follow correctional case law to avoid legal liability, and the public’s requests for more transparency, “may kind of lead to the same road.”

Because jails are supervised by independently elected officials, the county sheriffs, Weiler said, “I’ve done some serious thinking about my proper role as a legislator. ... I don’t want to intentionally step on anyone’s toes.”

So, he has “settled on asking the jails to send the state” the death and opioid reports.

Miller’s mother, Cindy Farnham-Stella, of Reno, Nevada, has been lobbying Utah officials and civil rights groups to effect changes in the jails.

“They’re starting to move in the right direction, apparently,” she said when told of the Davis jail changes. “They noticed they’ve got a lot of problems going on, so that’s a plus. I haven’t come across any deaths lately. That’s good.”

But, she said, “I’m just wondering why these things weren’t implemented prior to this huge, drastic deal. It’s kind of late for the people who passed last year.

“Right now things have changed really because of what happened last year, of course,” Farnham-Stella said. “Heather and all these other people who lost family members to Davis County and other jails are hopefully seeing some light. Hopefully, the other jails will be in the same mindset.”

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 at facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

 

 

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