Utah jail deaths surged back to a concerning high in 2020. What’s being done?

County jails haven’t reported this many jail deaths since 2016.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) More people died in Utah jails in 2020 than in any year since 2016, despite lower facility populations attributed to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, recently released state data shows.

More people died in Utah jails in 2020 than in any year since 2016, despite lower facility populations attributed to COVID-19 mitigation efforts, recently released state data shows.

And of those 19 people who died in county jails that year, suicide — not the coronavirus — was the leading cause of death.

The last time that many people died in county facilities, it was a red flag. It marked one of the highest jail death rates in the nation. Two years later, in 2018, state lawmakers passed legislation that required annual, statewide tracking and reporting of such deaths. With that data, policymakers agreed, they could identify the problems in jails and pass laws to fix them.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“And that’s kind of where we left it off,” said Sen. Todd Weiler, the data collection bill’s sponsor.

Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said this upcoming session, he planned to circle back to the issue.

“We’ve got a couple of years of data now…,” Weiler said, “What are we going to do with it?”

The 2020 report, generated by the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice based on facility reporting, does show suicide remains a problem in Utah jails. Federal data also shows Utah continues to outpace national averages in rates of both jail deaths and suicides.

Tom Ross, director of the justice commission, declined to comment on the recently released report. The commission is tasked with collecting justice-related data and coordinating with groups to develop policy. He deferred to the involved agencies.

“We don’t have any details to provide beyond what the report includes,” Ross said in an email.

Representatives from the Utah Sheriffs Association, which represents the state’s sheriffs’ departments, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It remains unclear whether the apparent spike in jail deaths signals a regression in reform efforts meant to curb them, said Lyla Mahmoud, ACLU of Utah’s legislative and policy counsel. Studies have shown that mental health issues also increased during the pandemic, and it would be hard to know exactly how the coronavirus — and mitigation efforts — may have impacted jail suicide rates that year.

Still, she said the numbers were concerning.

“It’s shocking, because you don’t want to be hearing that people are dying in our county jails,” she said, “But I can’t say that it necessarily stood out based off of the track record.”

What we do — and don’t — know about people dying in jails

Suicide was the leading cause of death in county jails, attributed in eight cases, the report shows. It’s been the most prevalent cause of death in Utah jails since at least 2013, as far back as the report tracks data.

The report labeled four deaths as either “other/unknown,” and alcohol/drug intoxication and illness accounted for three deaths each. One death was reported as an accident.

About half of the people who died in jails did so after being there 14 days or less, including two people who died the same day they were booked. The majority weren’t convicted of any crimes.

While the report breaks down suicide statistics further — showing the age range, days incarcerated, race, gender and size of the jail that people who died by suicide were were housed in — the same data isn’t reported for other death classifications.

Wendy Parmley, director of medical and mental health issues with the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, said it would be helpful if the report outlined more specific causes of death. Like if someone died from an illness, showing whether it was a heart attack, cancer, physical trauma or sepsis, for example.

She’d also like death reporting expanded to include people under the supervision of Adult Probation and Parole.

“Individuals leave jails and prison with life-limiting conditions that were possibly not addressed, or addressed poorly in some instances,” Parmley said. “How can we improve if we don’t know the details?”

Nate Crippes, with the Disability Law Center, said he was concerned about the data did show.

“These numbers certainly don’t paint a picture that things have improved just by the data becoming public,” Crippes said, “but also, the data has only become public fairly recently.”

Going into the upcoming legislative session, Disability Law Center advocates will have the figures in mind, he said.

What’s been done — and what more can be?

Since Weiler’s data collection bill was passed — which also required that a workgroup meet to form policy recommendations — legislators have revisited it to clarify what counts as a jail death.

The effort closes a loophole where jails could skirt reporting in-custody deaths if an inmate died at a hospital or on the way to a hospital.

In 2019, Weiler also co-sponsored a bill with former Republican Rep. Brad Daw that convened a study of treatment given to inmates experiencing mental health and/or substance misuse disorders. It also ensured inmates underwent an evaluation to identify such disorders when booked into jail.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, makes remarks on March 29, 2022. Weiler sponsored a jail and prison death data collection bill in 2018.

Parmley said those reforms didn’t go far enough. In addition to more robust data reporting, she said humanizing experiences in jail could help address the high number of suicide deaths. That could involve giving incarcerated people more access to natural sunlight and physical activity, and providing them with fresh food and a sense of community, she said.

Her organization has also suggested other reforms, including partnering with University of Utah outpatient clinics to help manage any inmates with complex medical cases and tying legislative funding for prisons and jails to clinical outcome measures, like mortality and morbidity rates.

Utah’s ACLU said educating people about the pitfalls of mass incarceration and the role of prosecutors in sending people to jail could help, too.

“If we have fewer people in our jails and prisons,” Mahmoud said, “we have fewer of these issues.”

Last year, the ACLU of Utah and the Disability Law Center won a lawsuit to make public more of the state’s jail standards.

According to the 2019 Utah Sheriffs Association jail standards, the most recent version available on their website, there is an ongoing debate about whether — and how — to modify jail standards.

“Do we do just the base minimum requirements as required by the Constitution and the laws? Or do we go above and beyond and do more than required by the standard?” it asked. “In the court of the public opinion we must go beyond what is required.”

Reforms that go “above and beyond,” however, are costly, according to the association, and not proven to be effective.

“There is a segment of society that is more than willing to pay for it. They feel as though the inmates should have more rights and privileges,” the document reads. “Many do not agree with this. It all comes down to who is louder and can push their agenda the furthest and keep the fight going.”

The association has said the state’s jail standards established a level of care required by applicable laws, and were created (and copyrighted) by Gary Deland, a former director of the Utah Department of Corrections and private contractor.

“We are in a new era of finding ways to rehabilitate the offender and to encourage good citizenship. There are many who will not take advantage of the rehabilitation ... ,” the document reads. “We must all work together to find ways to keep costs down, while providing for the basic needs and providing top notch care and professionalism to those who are in jails and prisons.”

The 2019 document called the standards a “good, defensible, starting point of what we need to do.”

People are still dying in jails

The state hasn’t released any data on how many people died in Utah jails last year, and it’s unclear how many have died so far in 2022. However, news reports confirm there have been at least four deaths in Utah jails this year — all of them suspected suicides.

One of those suspected suicides was Joey Conrad. Investigators said the 42-year-old died in his Weber County jail cell on Feb. 28.

His mother Nancy Montoya — interrupted here and there by the chatter of Conrad’s 3-year-old son, Rome — said her son was devastated because he learned at a recent court hearing that he would not be getting out of custody as soon as he’d hoped.

“He was determined not to go back,” she said.

(Nancy Montoya) Joey Conrad poses with his dog. Conrad, 42, was one of four people who died by suspected suicide in Utah jails this year.

Transitioning to life with limited freedoms is difficult, said Faye Jenkins, director of sex offense policy issues with the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network. Jenkins got involved in the group when her husband was incarcerated about four years ago. It was a hard adjustment for him, she said.

“When you’re separated, you’re isolated, and you’re surrounded by negative energy of those who are watching over you — you just don’t have the heart to continue,” Jenkins said.

Weber County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Joshua Marigoni said he can understand that pain, and that jail staff try to be conscious of it as well. The jail has mental health resources, he said, including counselors, and that corrections officers can also refer someone for treatment if they see signs it might be necessary.

When someone dies by suicide in jail, they often haven’t shown signs that they need help, the lieutenant said. He also theorized that jail suicide rates may have some correlation with general suicide rates — and Utah has held one of the highest suicide rates in the country over the last several years.

Montoya said her son was under the impression he was going to be able to travel to Arizona to face another court case. During that time, he thought he’d be able to see his two daughters. He was excited. That’s what they discussed the last time she spoke with him, the day before he died.

She learned of his death the next day, when sheriff’s office deputies knocked on her door. At first she didn’t believe it, but after seeing the investigative report and autopsy, she has begun to accept it.

But time, and acceptance, haven’t brought her much peace. For years, Montoya tried to get her son help for substance misuse. She wrote to a judge in February 2016, pleading for leniency — and help.

“Joey has a very bad drug problem. He has had it for at least 10 years. Yes I know he needs to be punished for his wrong choices. But,” she wrote, “he needs help for the drug dependency.”

He never got it, Montoya said. Sometimes he’d make appointments with treatment facilities, but never show up.

Conrad always showed up for others though, Montoya said. He once saw two children playing outside on a hot day, and hurried to get them some water, she remembered. If Montoya — who’s had two strokes — fell down, she could call Conrad, and he would rush home to pick her up.

Montoya thinks jail staff could have paid more attention to Conrad and perhaps prevented his death. She said she told them when he was booked back into jail in November 2021 that he was depressed and would be withdrawing from drugs. That he was sick with some kind of chronic, internal pain.

On Feb. 28, however, Conrad was in his cell with his cellmate while other inmates were outside. A friend of Conrad’s walked up to the door and saw him dying. He called for help. Conrad was taken to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Marigoni said guards are required to check on inmates once every hour. Often, they check once every 45 minutes. The lieutenant said the jail completed its investigation into Conrad’s death and found nothing concerning.

Conrad would call Montoya from jail most days, at around 7:30 p.m. Now, her phone doesn’t ring as often. One solace, she said, has been getting to spend more time with Conrad’s youngest child, Rome. She called him her little partner.

He’s a handful, but the little boy, with his dark hair and eyes and stubby, short limbs, reminds her so much of her son.