Chronicle of Utah jail medical emergencies: Fights, falls, overdoses

Sunday , April 08, 2018 - 5:00 AM1 comment

A jail nurse and a corrections deputy were distributing medications in a cell block when an inmate approached them and said, “There’s an old man on the floor.”

They found a 57-year-old inmate sprawled in his cell, blood pooled around his head. Investigators later reviewed video footage and determined the man had lost a bout of “mutual combat” with a fellow inmate.

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Paramedics took the man to an Ogden hospital, where he was treated for bleeding on the brain, a broken nose, a deep scalp cut and high blood pressure.

The fight was one of 20 non-fatal but serious or life-threatening incidents at the Weber County Jail in 2017 that required emergency paramedic calls and trips to the hospital, according to jail records.

The emergencies included fights, heart trouble, seizures, falls from bunks, street-drug overdoses, injuries due to mental health outbursts or intoxication, and one birth.

One additional 2017 incident resulted in an inmate’s death. Matthew Ryan Hall, 31, was on suicide watch and awaiting a Utah State Hospital mental health evaluation when he broke his neck Feb. 24, 2017. He died six weeks later in a Salt Lake City hospital. 

Meanwhile, the Davis County Jail reported 14 non-fatal but significant medical emergencies in 2017, according to documents obtained following a public records request. A 15th case was a death — Gregory Leigh Hayes, 33, who had a history of drug abuse. He collapsed in the jail booking area Dec. 14.

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TRANSPARENCY NOT EASY?

However, deep analysis of county jail incidents is not easy to come by because of limitations with corrections record-keeping systems. So far, only case-by-case information has been disclosed.

Weber County’s system lacks robust search capabilities, and the sheriff’s office gathered records of serious incidents only after the Standard-Examiner won an appeal for the information. The sheriff’s office said it researched ambulance billings to identify relevant reports.

Salt Lake County rebuffed a similar request for records unless the newspaper paid $1,000 or more — fees allowed by state law — for the clerical work it said would be necessary to comb records. Then, records to be disclosed must be scrubbed of personal information.

“We have to call up individual reports; we don’t have a good statistical data mining system,” said Melanie Mitchell, a deputy district attorney.

“We do now have a list of deaths and are keeping track of those,” she said.

After two years of controversy over a surge of jail deaths in the state, the Utah Legislature in March passed a bill requiring county jails and state prisons to submit annual reports of the deaths.

RELATEDBill requiring Utah jails to report in-custody deaths passes House, Senate

Mitchell offered a few general numbers the Salt Lake jail gleaned from its system. The jail in 2017 reported 183 “ambulances backs” — meaning an ambulance returned an inmate to jail after a medical trip. She said the jail had 130 attempted suicides and 854 “non-criminal” injuries.

Utah County also was asked in February to supply information of non-fatal emergency incidents but had not responded as of Friday, April 6.

INMATE CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM

At the Weber County Jail, the staff tries to anticipate potential problems with its classification system, said Lt. Joshua Marigoni, corrections spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

“We look at their charges, their history, how they are acting, is there substance abuse, is there gang involvement,” Marigoni said. “From a management standpoint, it’s a lot of information gathering.”

Therefore, inmates with incompatibilities are kept separated, he said, “but we don’t always get the whole story from the inmate. We try to be very thorough.”

Most new inmates are run through a body scanner, which can detect drugs stashed in body cavities, Marigoni said.

Some inmates present multiple problems.

A 50-year-old man fainted on consecutive days, resulting in ambulance runs to the hospital. When he was booked into jail again after the second fainting, he was found to be intoxicated with methamphetamine. The next day, he suffered a significant cut in a fight.

In another case, a 40-year-old woman admitted during booking that she had consumed two prescription narcotics that day. Based on her vital signs, a jail nurse administered an anti-overdose drug.

She was kept in the booking area for observation, the county report said. After her condition worsened, she admitted having taken heroin just before her arrest and was sent to the hospital by ambulance.

“If we have a suspicion that someone may have ingested a large amount of drugs, our nurses are trained to watch for all signs of that,” Marigoni said. “We’ll put them on a watch period, with checks every 15 minutes, until they’re stable.”

BUNK FALLS

Occasionally, an inmate falls off a top bunk. One such incident became a major controversy in 2016, when a woman held on a misdemeanor drug allegation toppled from her bunk in the Davis County Jail, suffering a ruptured spleen. She bled to death internally, and the woman’s mother is suing the county.

RELATED: Davis jail death plaintiff blasts secrecy and 'callousness'

Marigoni said bunk falls happen occasionally.

“People fall out of the top bunk at home, too,” he said.

He said research has shown that most inmates do better when they have a cellmate, and that means cells with bunks. Being in a cell with a compatible cellmate helps both people do their time more constructively, he said.

Seizures are not uncommon among jail inmates.

“Some are due to alcohol and drug withdrawals and others are for unknown reasons,” Marigoni said. “Some maybe had been having them on the outside and were self-medicating and don’t tell us, and then they have a seizure here.”

Three significant injuries in the Davis County Jail in 2017 illustrated the types of chaotic events that can occur.

At 3:15 p.m. on July 4, an inmate alerted a corrections deputy that another inmate was unconscious and barely breathing.

“It looked bad,” one deputy said in an incident report.

It took paramedics 25 minutes of resuscitation efforts before the inmate started breathing somewhat normally and moving again. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital and recovered.

Jail investigators reported the inmate had nodded off in the cell block day room and fellow inmates “sent him to bed so he would not get caught.”

SMUGGLED SYRINGE

Investigators determined the inmate had smuggled in a syringe and liquid narcotics rolled up in a pair of socks. They also found 14 pills rolled up in a bit of plastic hidden inside a personal hygiene tube.

In an Aug. 19 incident, an inmate was found unconscious on the floor with his back to the cell wall. His cellmate said he did not hear anything because he was asleep wearing earbuds.

It seemed so suspicious that corrections officers initially considered treating it as a crime scene. But the inmate revived and said his head hurt and didn’t remember what happened. In the end, they decided he must have fainted.

The Davis jail on Nov. 10 reported having to restrain an inmate who was moved to a medical cell for observation after “acting strange.”

A corrections officer looked through the cell window and saw him slam his head into the cell door. The cellmate attempted to stop him, but he broke free, ran to the back of the cell and slammed his head into the wall two or three more times.

Several deputies entered the cell and put leg restraints and handcuffs on the man, who was bleeding heavily.

Said Weber County’s Marigoni: “We take every medical problem very seriously. The staff here does a fantastic job with medical issues, with a lot of dynamic situations, with what we have.”

Still, each of the two counties faces a pair of federal district court wrongful-death and civil rights lawsuits, based on allegations of poor medical care in the 2016 deaths.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

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