Dirt on an inmate’s hand had left a visible print on the gray concrete wall. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill put his hand next to it as his eyes traced the towering 25-foot walls to the wire caging that obstructed his view of the blue sky.
“Nothing brings you the sense of isolation more than this,” he says, his eyes moving around the 20-by-20 concrete box that makes up a recreation yard at the Salt Lake County jail.
This isn’t Gill’s first time here. But being in that yard and seeing those handprints on the wall helps him realize the power he has as a prosecutor.
His attorneys can take away someone’s liberty. They can make decisions that will send people to the jail where they could sit in metal cells for months on end, where their recreation will be in that drab yard where the walls feel like they are closing in on you.
But Gill said there’s many prosecutors in his office who go their whole career without ever setting foot in the place where they are sending people. He wants to change that.
“Until you feel that cold concrete,” he said, “until you feel a padded room, until you see that [inmates] have to strip down and go into a shower and somebody opens a window and hands [them] clothing — How am I ever going to understand what the power of my decision was?”
Gill is one of 38 elected district attorneys from across the country who have pledged to visit the correctional facilities where the people prosecuted by their offices are placed. He toured the Salt Lake County jail on a recent Friday with his administrative staff, with plans to soon visit a juvenile detention facility and the Utah State Prison.
And Gill said all of the prosecutors in his office — about 100 attorneys — will do the same. It’s important to him, he said, that the attorneys have more than an abstract understanding of what jail is like.
That will help them do their jobs more fairly as they negotiate plea deals or argue for a judge to sentence someone to jail time.
“I’ve got a lot of prosecutors with a lot of bravado,” he said, “who say, ‘That’s what I want, this person deserves this.’ But what is the collateral consequences of what you think? And if you don’t understand it, then you can’t own it. I want us to own our decisions.”
The prosecutors agreeing to make these visits are responding to a challenge that came from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. The organization has urged not just district attorneys, but lawmakers, to tour jails and see first-hand what people experience when they are incarcerated.
Miriam Krinsky, executive director of a national prosecutor network called Fair and Just Prosecution, said she hopes the jail tours will bring prosecutors closer to those affected by their actions.
“Prosecutors control the front door of the justice system through their charging decisions,” Krinsky said. “As such, they have an obligation to see and understand the conditions in the jails and prisons where their advocacy sends people, as well as the impact of those decisions on the individuals incarcerated within their walls, their families and the broader community.”
During his tour, Gill and eight staff members walked through the area where inmates are first brought into the jail and the cells where they sleep. They walked the long halls, where just ahead a group of men in yellow jumpsuits shuffled forward, holding a sack lunch with their hands cuffed behind their backs. They stood in a jail pod, a group of cells, and learned about the drug treatment program, as locked-up women peered at them through glass windows.
Throughout, Gill asked questions of the jail staff. Would it be easier to do their job if they had access to a state prescription drug database? Could they change the way they craft plea deals to help the staff better control the jail population? Would they support eliminating cash bail? How do they prioritize who gets into the drug treatment program?
By the time Gill left, he had scribbled down half a dozen ideas that were sparked by conversations during the two-hour tour.
He looked at the list, saw ways he could make a change that he hopes increases the quality of life on the people held in this jail and save the county money. Now, that work begins.