Complications of pandemic postpone medical, mental health improvements in jails
OGDEN — A year ago, Weber County Jail officials were working on plans to improve mental health and medical services for inmates. Then COVID-19 hit, knocking some projects off track.
In late 2019, Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon was talking about a major expansion of the medical unit, which is inadequate for modern demands.
“When this jail was built 20 years ago, the opioid issue wasn’t a problem,” Arbon said at the time. “Twenty years later, it’s up front and center and we’ve got to deal with it.”
The same issue applies for inmates suffering mental problems. Suicide is the top cause of death in jails.
Instead, the Sheriff’s Office and the jail grappled with COVID-19 outbreaks, which required numerous operational changes to try to limit virus exposure in an environment not amenable to social distancing.
The jail, the sheriff and the Weber County Attorney’s Office faced legal and protesters’ pressure to release more nonviolent inmates and otherwise improve conditions worsened by the pandemic.
“We had to shift gears completely,” said Lt. Joshua Marigoni, the sheriff’s corrections spokesperson. “When COVID hit, we had to back-burner a lot of great ideas.”
The jail still has the decades-old medical observation area, just a few cells next to the booking operations desk.
The plans for expansion and other improvements “are not gone,” Marigoni said. “We’ll get to working on them as COVID stabilizes. They’re still very important. Hopefully we don’t have a COVID 2021 or something.”
SUICIDE PREVENTIONThe need for improvements was punctuated in 2020 by a drug-withdrawing woman’s dehydration death and the suicides of two male inmates.
In Sheriff’s Office investigation reports obtained by the Standard-Examiner with a public records request, investigators detailed circumstances leading up to the deaths of Bryan David North and Davin White Stott.
Both died by hanging, Stott on Aug. 21 and North on Nov. 19.
According to the reports, Stott had attempted suicide in the jail twice before, on Jan. 7 and March 19.
The investigative timeline chronicling the jail video surveillance record and jail deputies’ individual reports showed that Stott covered his jail cell window with toilet paper on the night of his death, and five minutes later he was found hanging, unresponsive.
“I’ve known about his suicide tendencies,” an inmate said of Stott during an interview with investigators, describing Stott as a good friend. “He’s told me many times that he’s going to do it.”
The inmate added, “It’s horrible that depression does this.”
Another inmate and friend of Stott’s said, “We both have suicidal thoughts daily, all day sometimes. He always confirmed he’s not going to go to prison. He said he would kill himself before that would happen.”
During the investigation, jail personnel found a copy of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a 1946 book by a survivor of Nazi death camps. Stott had highlighted passages that mentioned suicide, the investigation report said.
Stott also had told a cellmate that if he committed suicide the cellmate should retrieve from his bunk letters he had written to his family.
After North’s death, several inmates housed in nearby cells asked for counseling.
Sheriff’s officials have said personnel have prevented several suicide attempts in the jail in recent months.
IMPACTS AT DAVIS JAILIn Davis County, the jail in Farmington has juggled similar issues. Three inmates died by suicide there in 2020.
The pandemic did not strike any Davis jail inmates until December. However, Sheriff Kelly Sparks said the necessary measures to prevent infections throughout the year inflicted a toll on inmates and staff in various ways.
“No doubt the pandemic has had a huge effect on our personnel and some of our operations and educational programs in the jail,” Sparks said.
For example, an inmate jail worker was exposed to COVID-19 several weeks ago, forcing the quarantine of all inmate workers. Jail staff had to take over all of the meal serving, cleaning and other chores.
He said circumstances have taxed the jail’s goal of seeing that inmates are better off when they leave than when they arrived.
Still, the county was able to break ground last month on a new medical observation unit, an addition to the jail complex. It will replace the existing six-cell unit inside the jail.
And this week, the Sheriff’s Office announced a new program in which all inmates will be issued computer tablets, which will boost access to medical and mental health resources and other things.
“Fortunately, we have been able to move forward with these initiatives,” Sparks said.
In Weber County, medical and mental health-related steps taken in 2020 included obtaining a $1 million grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance for mental health programs and efforts to reduce repeat offenses.
The county also hired a new jail medical contractor, VitalCore Health Strategies, and signed a $421,000 contract with the University of Cincinnati to train local staff in helping jail inmates kick drug habits, get mental health counseling and find jobs after release.
Those thinking of harming themselves have several resources available:
Weber Human Services emergency or crisis services, 801 625-3700.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, 801-323-9900
Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah, 801-399-1600
Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital Behavioral Health, 801-387-5600