OGDEN — Ryan Arbon showed visitors some snapshots he took of the new Dallas County Jail medical wing in Texas.

The receiving area for new inmates resembled a hospital lobby. Rooms to evaluate the inmates looked like hospital ER bays.

“This is where we are trying to go,” said Arbon, in his first year as Weber County’s elected sheriff and facing a daunting list of issues and problems.

The Weber County Jail’s 20-year-old medical unit is too small, antiquated and not up to the task of handling today’s rising tide of arrestees addicted to opioids, overdosed, or dangerously withdrawing.

Same goes for the mentally ill, who inundate the jail and increase its suicide risk profile.

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The medical wing inside Weber County Jail on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.

Arbon and his staff are tackling these and other issues affecting the jail in realization that conditions cannot stay the same.

“My attitude is that society and law enforcement are constantly changing,” Arbon said. “Simply the way things have been done in the past don’t always work today.”

Arbon recently gave three Standard-Examiner journalists a 1 1/2-hour tour of the jail and Sheriff’s Office complex on 12th Street.

He spent another hour fielding questions in his office, occasionally pointing to a whiteboard covered with jottings denoting changes the sheriff’s office has made this year.

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Sheriff Ryan Arbon poses for a portrait in his office on Tuesday, September 3, 2019 at the Weber County Sheriff's office. He stands in front of a whiteboard list of things he has changed and improved since he took the role as sheriff.

Before Arbon took office, Utah’s county jails experienced several tough years. The state had a record 27 jail deaths in 2016, three of those in Weber. Relatives of several people who died after being incarcerated have filed federal lawsuits alleging constitutionally deficient medical care.

The Weber Sheriff’s Office had an evidence room fiasco, and the Davis Sheriff’s Office saw upheaval after a sexual harassment scandal and a state-leading six jail deaths in 2016.

Though Arbon spoke of a need for changes, he stressed he was not finding fault with previous Weber sheriff’s administrations. Arbon replaced Terry Thompson, who served eight years as sheriff and chose not to run again in 2018.

“We’re making a lot of changes, but that doesn’t mean it was wrong or bad in the past,” Arbon said. “I think the past sheriff did a lot of great things. He made decisions with the information he had at that time.”

He added, “Now we come on board and we see we want to go in a different direction and we want to improve.”

Arbon has set up “huddle boards” in various parts of the sheriff’s complex, where staff members meet to brainstorm and record ideas.

The sheriff hired a case manager to work with volunteer groups to tailor employment, job training and other services to the specific circumstances of a given inmate whenever possible.

Officials created an “inspiration” form on which anyone on staff can submit ideas.

Corrections Lt. Joshua Marigoni said one idea solved a security issue in the jail.

Specialized screws holding vents in place inside cells had become worn and loose over two decades and some inmates had figured out how to remove them and hide things. The jail fabricated a tool that jail personnel can check out to keep the screws on tight.

It’s an example of steps to better control contraband, which can include narcotics, weapons — or items an inmate might want to use for suicide.

“Sometimes when you get in these institutions there’s the way the bosses do it and the command staff do it, and it’s ‘they just do it this way,’” Arbon said. “But now it’s whatever you think, send it up, because we don’t know everything.”

Arbon and his jail commander, Chief Deputy Sheriff Aaron Perry, toured the upgraded Dallas jail and saw the potential for better medical handling of inmates. They’re now working on plans that include a new medical wing and additional nursing staff to thoroughly triage incoming arrestees.

“When this jail was built 20 years ago the opioid issue wasn’t a problem,” Arbon said. “Twenty years later, it’s up front and center and we’ve got to deal with it.”

This also mirrors inmates suffering mental problems.

“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.”

OPIOID ADDICTION

In the spring, the Sheriff’s Office started the Weber Addiction Reentry Program, or WARP.

A previous program had few inmates enrolling and results were meager, Marigoni said, so it was scrapped.

With the help of jail contractor Alpha Counseling, the jail began WARP, a substance abuse program.

“The single best thing about WARP is that it’s not rigid,” Marigoni said.

An inmate can continue in the program while doing work release. Marigoni said local judges are starting to incorporate WARP participation into some sentencings.

“Keeping someone in lockdown custody so they can go to a program just seemed very rigid,” Marigoni said. “Is it more right to get them out and get them searching for work and getting back to work?”

The Sheriff’s Office also temporarily suspended a program of administering Vivitrol shots to inmates with addiction histories when they are released. The drug inhibits narcotic cravings for 30 days.

Parry said the nursing staff had complained they lacked thorough education on Vivitrol and wanted more training. After additional training, the program resumed.

Vivitrol is another tool in the Sheriff’s Office’s Bridging the Gap program, also started this spring. It is aimed at helping inmates get reestablished productively in society after they leave jail.

“It’s easy sometimes to take the easy way out and go get high,” Marigoni said. “That’s how we lose them, because they’re right back into a downward spiral and coming right back to jail.”

MENTAL HEALTH The jail officials said there are no panaceas in the effort to prevent jail suicides. Three men have died by suicide in the past two years, two of them during Arbon’s tenure.

Marigoni said the inmate intake screening process “has gotten a lot more refined.”

Perry said that includes a more rigorous evaluation of whether an inmate is mentally fit to enter the jail.

“If the person is actively suicidal we will require the (arresting police) officer to take that person to the hospital to get a clearance from a medical doctor,” Perry said.

And after deaths and other critical incidents, jail commanders are doing extensive reviews, Perry and Marigoni said.

“We go back and look at what happened and how it happened and how we can improve on it,” Marigoni said. “We try to learn from everything.”

He said the jail has good policies and procedures, but “as we do these reviews, everything’s being done right, and sometimes that’s not enough. So if everything’s being done right, it’s ‘what can we do to improve?’”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt.

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