Weber County inmate’s death underscores challenges of fighting jail suicide
OGDEN — In his last court appearance on Feb. 28, 2022, Joey Conrad — then an inmate at the Weber County Jail — was adamant.
“I’m not going to plead guilty to no felony, your honor,” he told 2nd District Court Judge Ronald Russell.
He had gone into the pretrial conference that day thinking a felony weapons possession charge out of Davis County would be reduced to a misdemeanor as part of a plea deal, thereby keeping him out of state prison. “He didn’t want to go back to prison,” his mom, Nancy Montoya, told the Standard-Examiner.
Learning otherwise, learning he could be facing prison time, came as a shock. And in audio of that six-minute video court appearance last year, he reiterated his reservations again and again.
“I’m not pleading guilty to anything I’m not guilty of. … I’m tired, I’m too old for this,” Conrad said. His ex-wife later received the audio from the court, and Montoya, who played it for the Standard-Examiner, has it downloaded onto her mobile phone.
Afterward, Conrad, 42, returned to his cell at the Weber County Jail, where he was serving a 180-day sentence in a separate Weber County case. Soon after that, he was dead by suicide, hanging in his cell. He left behind four kids, among others — an adult daughter, two younger girls cared for by their mother in Arizona and his youngest, 5-year-old Aston, now living in Ogden with Montoya.
“I’m in limbo. I’m helpless. I don’t know what to do. I just take care of this boy who looks like his daddy,” Montoya said.
Montoya — who says her son was depressed, though she didn’t cite any suicidal outbursts — points an accusing finger at jail officials, who she thinks should have been doing more regular walks around the facility to keep tabs on inmates. “At the jail, they don’t care about you. It’s not your son,” she said.
Weber County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Josh Marigoni painted a different picture, saying the same issues that affect the broader community, including suicide, are present in the Weber County Jail. “Our jail’s a city. … It’s an adult community,” he said.
Moreover, he said, when inmates express suicidal thoughts — not necessarily uncommon — corrections officers take them seriously. “We don’t sit on things like that. We take immediate action,” he said.
Either way, Conrad’s death underscores the challenges jail and prison officials across Utah and the nation face in contending with suicide, trying to prevent it. One Weber County Jail inmate has died by suicide so far this year, though three more have died reportedly due to other medical issues, while Conrad was the only inmate who died in the facility in 2022, by suicide or otherwise. Officials reported no suicide deaths in the Weber County jail in 2021, two in 2020, one in 2019 and one in 2018, according to records kept by the Standard-Examiner.
A December 2021 U.S. Department of Justice study found that there were 1,200 deaths in local jails across the country in 2019, 355 of them by suicide, “the leading single cause of death in local jails” that year. What’s more, the study found, jail inmates were more than twice as likely as other U.S. residents to die by suicide that year, adjusting the broader population to resemble the jail population in terms of sex, race, ethnicity and age distribution.
An October 2021 Department of Justice report offered similarly stark data.
“From 2001 to 2019, the number of suicides increased 85% in state prisons, 61% in federal prisons and 13% in local jails,” reads a summary of that report. In local jails, 90% of the suicide deaths in the 2010-2019 period were attributable to suffocation, including hanging and self-strangulation.
‘SHATTERED EVERY DAY’
Conrad had periodic brushes with the law, according to online court records, though there were also extensive periods with no apparent issues, at least in Utah.
The 180-day sentence he had been serving in the Weber County Jail at the time of his death was on a Class A misdemeanor count of impersonating another person, his brother, during an April 29, 2021, traffic stop in West Haven. Separate misdemeanor charges of possession of drugs, methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia had been dismissed.
In the pending Davis County case, stemming from his Aug. 24, 2020, arrest in Layton, he faced a felony charge of possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, apparently a “fighting-style knife,” according to court records. He was prohibited from possessing weapons stemming from prior convictions for “violent felonies,” according to charging papers.
That wasn’t the only count he faced in the incident. But it was the most serious one, and after he learned it wouldn’t be reduced to a misdemeanor in the Feb. 28, 2022, hearing, it seemingly dispirited him, prompting the worries about potential prison time. His mom, remembering the upbeat telephone conversation she had with him the day before, thinks it triggered his suicide.
The corrections officer who accompanied Conrad back to his cell after the video hearing, however, didn’t seem to think anything was amiss. The Standard-Examiner received a report containing the narratives of the varied Weber County Sheriff’s Office officials involved in responding to Conrad’s suicide in response to a public records request.
“While we were waiting for the V14 door, inmate Conrad told me he was so tired of court and that he wanted to be done with them,” reads the report from the corrections officer. “While walking down the hallway, he asked me what day it was and I said I think it’s February 28th. He said Oh cool. I have court with Valencia in two days. Inmate Conrad didnt act like anything was bothering him during this entire conversation.”
Thereafter, once corrections officers learned Conrad had hanged himself, using strips of his bed sheet as a noose that he knotted to the upper bunk in his cell, they sprung into action. Montoya says another inmate passing by Conrad’s closed cell saw him hanging, alerting officers.
The alert came at 1:01 p.m. on Feb. 28, according to the narratives provided by the responding officers. Within two minutes, Conrad had been cut down from his homemade noose and medical responders in the jail commenced efforts to resuscitate him. His face appeared blue and swollen.
Conrad was placed in an ambulance at 1:26 p.m. and brought to McKay-Dee Hospital, where a team of health care officials continued resuscitation efforts. It wasn’t enough, however, and he was declared dead at 2:01 p.m.
Marigoni, speaking generally, said corrections officers make periodic patrols around the jail, regularly changing up their routine. “The idea is to keep the jail population guessing. We don’t want them to figure out a routine,” he said.
However, he said, there will be times when corrections officers aren’t directly supervising inmates.
Montoya remains inconsolable, saying something needs to be done to increase inmate surveillance to further minimize the potential for suicide. She still sends emails to anyone she think can help, though she hasn’t gotten responses.
“I think they could’ve watched him or checked in on him more often,” she said. “What they need to do is put cameras in all the rooms so they can look at them. Either that or check on them more often.”
Moreover, she remembers the best of her son, notwithstanding his brushes with the law. He had variously worked in construction, roofing and swimming pool maintenance over the years.
“I’m shattered every day. It never gets better,” she said, remembering how he always came to her aid when she needed any sort of help. “He was a kindhearted, good soul. He never hurt anybody. He always had a hello for everybody.”
Those thinking of harming themselves have several resources available:
Weber Human Services emergency or crisis services, 801-625-3700.
Davis Behavioral Health 24-Hour Crisis Response Line, 801-773-7060
National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255
SafeUT Crisis Chat and Tip Line, 833-372-3388
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
Davis Hospital: Behavioral Health Unit and Emergency Room, 801-807-1000
Lakeview Hospital: Behavioral Health Unit and Emergency Room, 801-299-2200
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