Do you want to know the playbook county jailers are following to house and protect nearly 9,000 inmates in Utah? Tough luck.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an attorney, a civil rights group or a state lawmaker. The minimum standards counties use for operating jails — from how to prevent suicide to when to restrain inmates to what reading material is allowed — are off limits, for now, to everyone but the people running the jails and the person who wrote them.

That author is Gary DeLand, a former director of Utah’s Department of Corrections who trains corrections officials across the nation. DeLand wrote the standards jails in various states follow and offers to protect jail workers when incidents might lead to a lawsuit, while preventing much of that information from becoming public.

“I ran the Department of Corrections and a jail, and right now I oversee about 26 jails,” DeLand, who ran the state‘s prison system from 1985-1992, said in a June interview. “I’ve got a fair grasp of what goes on.”

DeLand is protecting his work product from release at a time when Utah is in the spotlight amid a rash of inmate deaths in county jails. The state had the highest local jail mortality rate in 2014, the latest full year for which data are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That year, at least 19 inmates died in jails, according to the agency. At least 11 died in 2015 and 23 in 2016, data obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune show.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others are fighting to pry open the books, hoping to examine DeLand’s standards for answers that could lead to legislation the groups say could reverse — or at least help better understand — a recent upward trend of the state’s local inmate mortality rate.

But DeLand is guarding his work, which he wrote in 1995 and copyrighted, from groups like the ACLU and plaintiffs’ attorneys, worried they may use it in future lawsuits against his clients.

“That access would provide those attorney[s] a tremendous amount of corrections law research and neutralize one of the most critical weapons I have in my litigation role,” DeLand wrote in an August letter to the state explaining why he’d rather end his agreement giving counties and the state access to his standards than release them to the public.

DeLand’s fight against public release of the information has stymied efforts by groups interested in jail oversight at a time when jail operators say their facilities are being used to house people who are mentally ill and others who are withdrawing from alcohol and opiates amid a decadeslong drop in state hospital beds and an increase in opiate addiction.

“There isn’t a jail commander out there who doesn’t realize mental health is a problem,” said Lt. Doyle Peck, jail commander in Cache County.

DeLand this year said the state’s high suicide rate has spread to county jails and inflated the number of in-custody deaths.

“If Utah has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country, why would it surprise you that Utah jails would also have suicides?” he said. “Prison does not liven up your day.”

But advocates aren’t giving up, saying the public has a right to see what their money pays for, to look for any possible shortfalls or areas that need improvement, and to have a more complete understanding for how people are treated and protected when they’re arrested and taken to jail. They say examining the DeLand standards and having thorough inspections would help.

“Without access to these standards, without knowing what’s in them, without having independent inspections, this is still a problem that needs to be solved,” said Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah.

Amid questions from The Tribune and others, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association said it would open the standards at a news conference Nov. 1 at the state Capitol, where DeLand would answer questions. Attendees won’t be allowed to take copies of the standards.

“That access would provide those attorney[s] a tremendous amount of corrections law research and neutralize one of the most critical weapons I have in my litigation role,” Gary DeLand, Aug. 4, 2017, in reference to the need to keep Utah‘s county jail standards private.

The privacy of public jails

DeLand remains deeply entwined in the corrections system after four decades in the business. He now exports his philosophy and practices through training seminars and by selling his standards to other states from his home base in southern Utah.

He is considered a national expert. His work led him to Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion. There, DeLand was one of several contractors with Utah roots working to retrofit Abu Ghraib, a prison near Baghdad where Iraqi prisoners were later abused by American military officials. He played no role in the scandal.

Deland’s work has also put him in the crosshairs of lawsuits and given him a hyperfocus on the legal system and developing methods and training that he says can pass muster in court.

A key piece of DeLand’s business prowess is acting as a defense witness for jailers who are sued by inmates or their families. He’s appeared in scores of lawsuits, primarily testifying on behalf of defendants in one of the most litigated fields in America.

DeLand was also named in hundreds of lawsuits during his tenure running the Salt Lake County jail and, later, Utah’s prison system. He’s known for his support of heavy-handed corrections practices and wrote Utah’s playbook for executing prisoners.

Among the lawsuits was one in which DeLand was sued after a mentally ill inmate who hadn’t yet faced trial was kept naked in a solitary cell with no bunk or operating toilet. He’s defended using hitching posts for inmates who refuse to work.

“If you can quantify human misery caused by any individuals, Gary DeLand probably beats out anybody that’s incarcerated in the Utah State Prison,” said Rocky Anderson, former Salt Lake City mayor and an attorney who spent years focused on DeLand and his methods.

Among corrections officials, DeLand is revered. By his account, he’s provided training and assistance to jail and prison officials in almost every state in America.

His willingness to train thousands of correctional workers helped win him prestige with the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2013, alongside fellow Utahn Tate McCotter, a business associate and son of DeLand’s successor as prison chief.

He and McCotter frequently train on hot-topic issues prisoner-rights groups often focus on, like the use of solitary confinement as a prisoner management tool and whether jails must adhere to federal guidelines on eliminating rape from prisons. Their trainings and writings routinely address lawsuits and how to beat or avoid them.

DeLand now works in part through the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, a nonprofit group run by the state’s 29 sheriffs. The association has paid DeLand $15,000 annually in recent years for his help as jail operations director.

The 25 sheriffs who oversee jails voluntarily follow his roughly 600 standards, which were made available in the state for $15,000, a discount compared to what he says he charges other states that use his standards, including Arizona, Oregon, Alabama, Hawaii and Colorado.

Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo | Six inmates died in the Davis County jail in Farmington last year, more than any jail in the state. Utah's highest in the nation local inmate mortality rate has lawmakers, counties and advocates focused on how to respond.

State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, has expressed interest in possible jail reforms in the wake of reporting on the high rate of inmate deaths. He formed an informal working group, which included the counties that fund the jails, and had hoped to study DeLand’s standards but couldn’t obtain them. The group stopped meeting.

Numerous counties and the Department of Corrections, which pays counties to hold some of its prisoners, have declined to make the standards available, each citing the same exemptions that allow government entities to prevent the public from viewing documents. The counties and state said DeLand owned the standards and they were unwilling to release “proprietary” information.

“I don’t understand how he gets away with that,” said Karen Russo, of the Missouri-based Wrongful Death & Injury Institute, which examines jail and prison standards and practices. “That’s basically telling me that [the standards are] a work product of his for his litigation-consulting component in his firm.”

Others said the state was making a choice that was keeping the public in the dark about its jails.

Jails “are a government service agency. Everybody that’s in here is at the expense of the taxpayers,” said Don Leach, a retired jail administrator and expert living in Sandy. “Shouldn’t the community paying for it know what they’re paying for?”

The secrecy also contrasts with procedures in other states, which pass laws that act as minimum standards that every county jail must follow.

Texas created a commission in 1975 that regulates jails and scrutinizes jail standards. That state has made the standards available to the public, and the commission releases a list of counties that don’t comply and the result of the inspections of noncompliant counties.

“Jails operate so much better when they’re operating with the thought that at any moment an inspector can come into our jail,” said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Under an absence of national standards, Pennsylvania also wrote minimum standards for its county jails.

“Someone has to make sure when you go to a jail you are being treated fairly,” said Scott Hoke, a former jail administrator in Pennsylvania who now teaches criminal law at Cedar Crest College. “How that’s done is different from state to state.”

It’s also not entirely clear how Utah adheres to its voluntary inspections program, but the results of those inspections, too, are kept private. The Utah County Sheriff’s Office declined to release any results of the audits, saying they belong to a private entity owned by Tate McCotter.

Reed Richards, an attorney who works with the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, calls any inspections that occur “voluntary, and compliance is voluntary.”

McCotter also runs a company called the National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO), which puts on training seminars and has accredited at least one jail, in Indiana, after inspecting it for compliance of nearly 600 “legal-based” standards. DeLand is listed as executive board member and senior instructor of NIJO.

By its own terms, NIJO is set up “to serve those that operate jails, detention and correctional facilities,” noting help from the institute would make facilities more secure. The company also helps to “proactively defend against frivolous litigation and protect against adverse publicity and liability.”

Russo, from the Wrongful Death & Injury Institute, calls the arrangement an issue that needs to be addressed.

“There is clearly a problem with their setup,” Russo said. “[It’s] clearly exemplified by the death statistics themselves.”

‘Help them cut their losses’

Beyond training, standards and inspection services, DeLand offers one more service to jail officials: emergency consultations.

Should there be a serious incident or a death in a jail, he recommends they give him a call.

“I tell the sheriffs, ‘Call me. It’s what I do for a living,’” he told The Tribune in June. “I teach all over the country on in-custody deaths.”

When attorneys bring lawsuits on behalf of inmates or their families, DeLand also wants to be involved in the suit.

“My concern is not only that somebody has died in the jail, but I want to make sure that the jail staff doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot and put themselves in unnecessary jeopardy by simply failing to do a proper investigation or fail to preserve certain records.

“A lot of sheriffs still call me and say, ‘Hey, this or that happened, what do we do now?’ And I’ll help them work through that process,” he said. “If they’ve done something that is just simply wrong, you might help them cut their losses a little bit.”