Resurgent Utah jail deaths prompt new legislative action
BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo
A newly reported spike in Utah jail deaths has prompted state legislators to again delve into the problem after they passed reform measures following an unprecedented wave of fatalities six years ago.
Loved ones of people who died in jail this year are asking some of the same questions posed by relatives of the deceased in 2016. Those questions focus on health care, medications, monitoring of inmates on substance withdrawal and the overriding issue of suicide prevention.
Nancy Montoya’s son Joey Conrad, 42, died of an apparent suicide in the Weber County Jail on Feb. 28 this year. A jail spokesperson said a fellow inmate noticed Conrad was unresponsive and jail and emergency personnel performed CPR. He died later at a hospital.
Montoya, 72, of Ogden, said in an interview that she thinks the jail could have prevented his death.
“They just told me he committed suicide and they didn’t even see it,” she said. “I wish they would have done more to help him. When he was first in there I told them that he had a drug problem and he was depressed and had health issues. I told them to watch him.”
Photo supplied, Conrad family
Lt. Joshua Marigoni, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office’s corrections spokesperson, said Conrad’s death happened between periodic cell checks, the rounds that jail deputies make to look into inmates’ cells. He said he had no further information immediately at hand about the case. The Standard-Examiner has filed a public records request for county reports on the death.
State Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, appeared before the Legislature’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee in October to review the latest available numbers on jail deaths. The jarring statistics have led them to begin planning new legislation for 2023.
Weiler and Moss co-sponsored Senate Bill 205 in 2018. It directed county jails to annually report to the state the numbers of inmate deaths and what was being done to keep inmates safe, prevent suicides and ward off the deaths of prisoners undergoing narcotics withdrawal.
After statewide attention was drawn to the 25 reported jail deaths documented by the Standard-Examiner in 2016, an apparent record, seven deaths were reported in 2017 and the trend of fewer deaths continued for the next few years. But an annual report by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice released in October showed that 2020’s toll matched the 2016 total. By the state’s accounting, there were 19 deaths in 2016 and again in 2020 (reports are submitted by county, and state officials say some counties have not uniformly participated).
“What’s discouraging to me is that we shared our concerns (with the counties), but the problem I have now is that four or five years down the road, we’re at those same spike levels,” Weiler said. “Per capita, we have some off the highest (jail death) rates in the nation, and it’s not something we want to lead on.”
BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo
Weber, Davis and Box Elder counties had a leading role in the 2020 surge in deaths, according to tracking by the Standard-Examiner.
The Weber County Sheriff’s Office reported four inmate deaths that year — two apparent suicides, another involving an inmate under medical supervision and a fourth whose death was investigated as suspicious. The Weber jail reported the death of an inmate in 2021 with “extensive pre-existing medical conditions” plus Conrad’s death this year.
The Davis County Jail reported three suicides in a seven-week period in 2020 and three more deaths in 2021 — an apparent suicide and two men in their 50s of apparent medical issues. The Davis jail has reported one death this year, a man who jumped from a tier — an incident cited by Moss in her presentation to the legislative committee.
In Brigham City, the Box Elder County Jail reported single deaths in 2020, 2021 and this year — a “medical episode,” an inmate withdrawing from narcotics and an apparent suicide. The Box Elder jail had gone four years without a death before that.
Moss said the deaths of women in the Davis and Duchesne county jails in 2016 were prime catalysts for the 2018 reform bill. Heather Miller, 28, fell off her bunk in the Davis jail, suffering a severed spleen. She died of internal bleeding three hours after a nurse’s perfunctory evaluation. Madison Jensen, 21, died of dehydration in the Duchesne County Jail. Both Jensen and Miller were picked up on misdemeanor drug charges.
To budget-conscious lawmakers, Moss pointed to news coverage of the Miller case, capped by a federal jury’s $8 million verdict against the Davis jail for providing unconstitutional and deliberately indifferent medical care to Miller.
Moss said Utah jails deaths reached a four-year high in 2020 despite lower jail population numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she and Weiler are working on a bill, details not yet determined, to provide more mental health screening in jails, among other things. Items might include beefed-up telehealth services and mobile units with mental health professionals.
“This is not to cast aspersions on those who work in the jails and the county sheriffs who supervise the jails,” Moss said, adding that the deaths also have a traumatic effect on jail staff members.
She said suicide remains the leading cause of death behind jail bars, seven statewide so far this year.
Tom Ross, director of the justice commission, said officials have “worked through a lot of the issues” spotlighted in the S.B. 205 review. Available funding and jail recruitment matters remain roadblocks. “There are about nine suicides a year. We’re not talking 30 to 40 deaths of suicide,” he said.
Rep. Matthew Gwynn, R-Farr West, added that there’s “no supply of mental health caseworkers.”
Some jail practices also need review, Weiler said. He mentioned resistance by jails for inmates accessing their existing prescriptions from outside doctors, long cited as a security issue by corrections officials. “What we have often is a warden or a sheriff standing between the patient and their doctor,” Weiler said, noting cases of arrestees on “successful Methadone treatment” being “immediately cut off of that with no treatment, nothing to substitute for it.”
Weber and Davis counties have taken numerous measures to tackle the array of problems. Davis County built a new inmate medical wing, which opened last year, and Sheriff Kelly Sparks said inmate intake screening is now done by nurses, not jail deputies. Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon is pursuing funding for a new medical unit at the Ogden jail and the sheriff’s office has added several programs to help inmates during their stay and after.
Montoya now lives on without a son who was her caretaker. She said she is disabled and has suffered two strokes. “He didn’t care what he was doing or where he was. When I needed him he would rush home. He would take care of me,” she said.
Conrad “had his drug problems,” she said, and he was shot by police years ago and went to prison for that. According to past Standard-Examiner coverage, Conrad, then 18, was shot several times after he stepped out of his car with a gun during a traffic stop in 1999.
One of the officers later told a reporter that he knew Conrad and thought he was seeking an “officer-assisted suicide.” The officer said, “I (had) talked to Joey two weeks before and we joked and laughed. Then I had to shoot him.”