Gehrke: After a string of deaths, legislators are leaning on the county jails to cough up their policies

Robert Gehrke

Roger Campbell was found dead in the Weber County jail after apparently hanging himself in his cell last month. The 53-year-old had been behind bars for just four days.

A month earlier, 30-year-old Julia Keebler was found unresponsive in her Uintah County jail cell. Her death, authorities said, also appeared to be self-inflicted.

Both deaths fit a trend reflected in a 2018 report by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, which found that half of the 71 inmates who died over the previous five years took their own lives and a majority of all deaths occurred in the first week that a person was locked up.

To understand the problem better, the Legislature created a working group of lawmakers, policy experts and law enforcement to figure out whether there were best practices that could be deployed to save inmate lives.

How are opiate-addicted inmates treated when they go into withdrawal, for example? What medications are used and what treatments available?

But many of the counties either refused to provide the policies, offered partial information or simply ignored the request. The reporting of the number of deaths was equally inconsistent, with several counties failing to provide data for several years.

As a public, we have a right to know this information and The Salt Lake Tribune fought for months to try to get access to it. But certainly the policymakers shouldn’t be expected to blindly send inmates and millions of taxpayer dollars to these county jails.

This week, the Legislature moved to use the leverage it has — namely the power of the purse — to demand counties cough up the necessary information.

For years, county sheriffs have complained that the Department of Corrections has been short-changing the jails, paying them less than the law says the department should to lock up more than 1,400 state inmates.

In essence, legislators are now saying: You want that additional money? Fine. No more stonewalling.

The committee that oversees the jail contracting budget recommended up to $4 million more for the counties, but included language that made it “contingent on county jail submission of all standards, rules, regulations, or policies, as well as all non‐privileged supporting documentation.” That includes audits, inspections and outside evaluations of the facilities.

“We have had a few deaths and we need the procedures to determine if the guardians followed procedures,” Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, the co-chairman of the budget committee who offered the language told me. “It is an accountability and transparency issue.”

The Utah Sheriff’s Association is not pleased. The organization’s executive director, Scott Burns, said the county jail policies, developed by Corrections with input from the sheriffs, are available to anyone on the association’s website.

Proprietary information prepared for the jails by former Corrections boss Gary DeLand was made available through a private site to legislators, but not one logged in to read it. DeLand sells his information in 40 states and making it publicly available is not an option, Burns said.

“This is an issue of 100 percent transparency with everything because we’re proud of it, with the one minor exception [the DeLand material] that might cloud all of it,” Burns said.

But the policies Burns point to on the sheriff’s site are really just umbrella guidelines. There is almost no mention of how to deal with inmates coming off drugs. As it pertains to suicide, it just says each jail should have written policies for dealing with suicidal inmates.

It also says jails should have written policies on allowable religious items, records management, personnel management, staff training, admission and release processes, visitation, rules for inmate conduct, and punishment for violating the rules.

None of those actual policies are included in the information jails made available to lawmakers online.

As I wrote on this topic back in November, if the sheriffs don’t like a little transparency when inmates die in their custody, then they’re welcome to forego the millions of dollars the state is paying them when they entrust those people to the jailers’ care.

Otherwise, the Legislature is well within its right — and, in fact, is doing its duty — when it expects a little accountability and transparency.