Suicide is the leading cause of Utah jail deaths. Lawmakers think barriers could help.

Since 2013, more than half of the state’s jail deaths were suicides.

(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. Utah lawmakers this session have passed a bill to fund suicide barriers to help reduce such deaths.

Utah lawmakers decided on Thursday to address a steep increase in inmate deaths with a voluntary grant program intended to help jails install suicide barriers.

The measure’s sponsors, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss and Sen. Todd Weiler, both acknowledged in hearings throughout this year’s legislative session that suicide barriers won’t eradicate jail deaths, but they hope this program will help.

The lawmakers’ proposal, HB259, comes after 19 inmates died in Utah jails in 2020 — matching a record-high in 2016 that made Utah’s rate of inmate deaths one of the highest in the country. Most of those inmates died by suicide. State data shows suicide is the leading cause of inmate deaths — accounting for 51% of all deaths since at least 2013. It’s unclear how many of those people died after jumping from a second-story area

In 2018, Spackman Moss and Weiler attempted to cull the high rate of jails deaths by passing a bill to collect data on how, when and who was dying in-custody. With this data, they hoped the state could better respond to prevent future deaths.

Since that bill passed, lawmakers hadn’t returned to the topic. After The Salt Lake Tribune obtained the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice’s most recent jail deaths reports last summer, which showed a record-tying increase in deaths after years of decline, Weiler said he wanted to review the issue in the 2023 session.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The legislators spoke with county sheriff’s office representatives during the interim to learn about the problem and possible solutions, and Spackman Moss and Weiler ultimately proposed the grant program bill, earmarking $140,000 for jails to add the suicide barriers — sort of like nets — to second-floor housing units.

County jail officials who want those funds will need to apply for the program, which will be administered by the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Spackman Moss said during a committee hearing that she discussed other options to address the issue, such as increasing tele-health opportunities for inmates, or better training for corrections officers, but the sheriff’s office representatives said that one solution will not work for every jail, since needs vary so much across the state.

Even these barriers aren’t applicable to all jails, since some don’t have multi-story housing units. But it would help the larger jails, like in Salt Lake and Davis counties, Spackman Moss said.

Salt Lake County jail administrators have tried, unsuccessfully, to receive federal funds to install such barriers for years, said undersheriff Jake Petersen. He said the barriers are too expensive for the jail to purchase without government assistance. The $140,000 allocation from this grant program would buy one barrier for one housing unit in his jail. One unit typically houses 64 people, he said.

Petersen said he thought the grant program could help, noting that jumping and self-strangulation were the most common ways inmates attempt suicide in jails.

He added that jail suicides are “unique and pernicious” in that there are normally more than 60 witnesses, as well as employees. He added that sometimes, those who attempt to die by suicide by jumping live.

“The trauma lasts the rest of their lives. These people are horribly, horribly injured,” he said. “It’s a terrible tragedy and we’d do anything to help support this (bill).”

Taryn Hiatt, director of the Nevada and Utah branches of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also supported the bill. She said that “barriers have been a proven strategy for years.”

Spackman Moss and Weiler’s proposal passed through its committee hearings and gained the support for the full House, but had initially stalled in the Senate because of concerns over how to fund the grant program and whether or not include a requirement that each county jail submit a report to the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice on how they plan to reduce suicide deaths.

A fourth substitute to the bill — which Weiler said during Senate floor time Thursday returns the bill to its initial state and nixes that suicide prevention plan requirement — ultimately passed through the Senate under a suspension of rules on Thursday, and passed the House for a second time that afternoon.

It will next be signed by each chambers’ presiding officer and head to the governor’s desk.

“Hopefully this is not the end,” Spackman Moss said of the bill, “but this is step one.”

Editor’s note • If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides free 24-hour support by calling 988.