A small group of Standard-Examiner journalists had the opportunity to tour the Weber County Jail in September with new Sheriff Ryan Arbon.
During our two-hour visit, we were able to walk through many parts of the local facility, from the intake bay where arrestees are initially brought in for booking, to the medical unit, cafeteria, and inmate cells.
While the county’s 20-year-old jail conditions don’t rival that of the Utah State Prison in Draper — where it mimics an old, archaic facility out of an apocalyptic film — much like other corrections facilities and jails in Utah, Weber County needs quite a few updates in order to carry out modern services.
The staff at the county jail, are admittedly, working with local residents who come to them on presumably one of the worst days of their lives. It can be a tough job, and one that likely goes thankless more often than not. But these employees help uphold our local public safety, and must do so to a greater extent than in previous decades.
How deputies handle and treat inmates has shifted significantly in the past 10 years. The opioid crisis is front and center and many Utahns are dealing with complicated mental health issues, all of which come to a crux in local jails.
Weber County is not immune to this, and it is likely why the sheriff and his team leaders are looking to improve the medical handling of inmates.
It was reported that Arbon and his jail commander recently visited the Dallas County Jail, which made modifications to its medical services including a new pharmacy, medical infirmary for acute care, a clinic, radiology, dental and entire mental health floor to house 145 inmates (with another 145 beds for medical). These modifications came with a $48 million price tag.
That is to note we’re not ignorant to the fact that significant changes in the way we handle sickness and severe mental health issues in our most vulnerable population do not come without new, upfront costs.
However, after learning more about our local jail than we have in many recent years, it is apparent that we cannot continue to expect the sheriff’s office to operate as it has in past decades. As currently constructed, it minimizes their effectiveness in addressing serious needs that were never considered 20 years ago.
A paltry three to four cells in a medical unit is not nearly sufficient to meet modern basic needs, much less the sweeping epidemic of opioid abuse and suicide in Utah for thousands of inmates that pass through Weber County Jail’s doors each year.
In an interview with the Standard-Examiner, Arbon said, “With mental health back then, we just threw them in there. Now we’re expected to provide some sort of a service or program or help for them, and that’s becoming front and center and we have to deal with it. We have to adjust.”
Substance abuse and mental health issues will not go away. And they cannot be ignored.
So, when Arbon told us his team is working on plans to propose a new medical wing and the need for additional nursing staff to triage incoming arrestees, we had a much more clear understanding of why.
The community should support the sheriff’s department in pursuing and carrying out these changes. These men and women understand the changing needs inmates have faced while our communities grapple with difficult, unsolved problems. We urge the county commission to prioritize finding ways to provide the financial means the county jail requires.
And it is a requirement, not a want.
Without addressing the lack of medical resources the jail has available, inmates faced with medical issues and insufficient care will continue to burden deputies, and the community, as those issues go unresolved and untreated and compound recidivism.
It is not a unique problem; Davis County Jail announced in March it would replace its 28-year-old medical wing with one that can handle much higher capacities and safeguards for inmates. Jails across the country have been carrying out similar changes.
It’s time Weber County bring about out those changes, too.