SALT LAKE CITY — After seeing the state’s first annual report on deaths in county jails, several officials who work in the system said suicide prevention behind bars should be a focus for legislative consideration.
The report, unveiled last week, showed 38 of 71 reported jails deaths from 2013 through 2017 were suicides, and that 31 deaths occurred within the first seven days behind bars.
“I know there are great models out there in different counties that have great medical staff who are responsive to this crisis mode that occurs when inmates come into their county jails,” said Kim Cordova, director of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which compiled the report.
She told the Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee on Wednesday that the “striking” trend of first-week suicides points to a need to find best practices for handling inmates in distress.
Two committee members work inside the justice system. They echoed Cordova’s emphasis on the suicide issue.
“I know jails that go to the nth degree to try and prevent someone from committing suicide,” said committee co-chairman Rep. Lee Perry, who is a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant in Box Elder County. “But if somebody is determined to (attempt suicide), I’d like to make sure that we can kind of distinguish those out.”
He said he hoped future reports would identify suicides in which a jail “did everything but put them in a paper suit, and yet the guy manages to get up on the toilet and do a header.”
Perry added and said, “What are we going to do, take bathrooms out?”
The CCJJ and lawmakers are looking at the jails after a record 27 reported deaths occurred in 2016. Many were suicides, and several were suffered by inmates withdrawing from opiates. Various officials have said some of the suicides may have been from people undergoing substance withdrawals.
“I think there are people out there who are just determined to do terrible things and we certainly don’t want to be telling our sheriffs and our jail commanders that they’re doing a poor job, because I think they’re doing an excellent job,” Perry said.
He said jails are working to prevent suicides “at a high level, the very best level they can,” but that the new state data will help the counties build on their successes.
Two Cache County officials urged the committee not to lump all counties together in its examinations of jail deaths.
“We should look for policies and procedures and interventions, not necessarily on a statewide basis, but go county by county,” said Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, who also is the contract medical director for the Cache County Jail.
Redd said because the report showed more than half of the jail deaths happened during the 14 days of incarceration, “they make me want to do more to help people during those first two weeks that they’re in jail.”
Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen told lawmakers that county jails realize many new inmates are troubled “because of things they’re coming off of and the attention they haven’t received before coming into jail.”
He said jails are “a little bit confusing” and all Utah jails are different. His jail, for instance, houses local inmates plus people from Franklin County, Idaho, and people being held for federal immigration agents.
“I just think jails are complicated places, so it’s not so easy to say” general solutions could be available, Jensen said.
The interim committee took no action on the report. So far there are no jail bills on tap for the 2019 legislative session.