Two dozen people died in Utah jails last year. Now a legislator wants more transparency on inmate deaths and jail rules to prevent more

Utah had the nation’s highest rate of county inmate deaths in 2014. Sen. Todd Weiler says the public should know when inmates die and what jails are doing to prevent deaths in the future.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, speaks on the Senate floor, February 3, 2017.

State Sen. Todd Weiler has read the news reports of high-profile inmate deaths in Utah, where county inmates died at a higher rate than anywhere else in the nation in 2014.

Those reports included Heather Ashton Miller, who fell off a top bunk in the Davis County jail in Farmington and split her spleen. She looked like she was dead, employees said, when paramedics were called, her skin an ashy gray. She was pronounced dead at 28 shortly after being taken from the jail that sits just outside of Weiler’s District 23.

Madison Jensen, too, was in the news this year. She died at 21 in the Duchesne County jail, having become sick and sliding into severe dehydration before dying alone on her cell floor.

A string of high-profile in-custody deaths – two-dozen last year – has led Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican, to consider proposing laws next session he hopes would lead counties to examine certain policies in place to protect inmates.

“If someone gets arrested and says I’m on methadone [a prescription used to wean people off opiates] ... right now most of our county jails are saying, ‘Well, you’re off the methadone now,’” Weiler said. “That’s not necessarily a good idea for someone working through a drug addiction.”

“I’m asking [counties to] tell us a list of prescription drugs that you’re refusing to dispense,” Weiler said.

The legislation would provide a level of transparency to an otherwise secretive area of government in Utah. The state’s operating standards that guide jailers on everything under a county jail’s roof are being kept from the public by Gary DeLand, the private consultant who wrote them and sells them nationwide.

While the standards are being kept from the public, typically, the policies that seek to implement the standards are available to the public under the state’s open records laws.

Weiler said his bill, which he may make one of his top three priority bills during the 2018 legislative session, would require jails to submit certain policies to the Legislature. Doing so, he said, could help counties rethink and bolster their policies.

The legislation could also require counties to provide the Legislature with an annual report on how many inmates died in custody in the previous year. This information is already public and has been provided to a federal agency with a two-year lag. The Tribune tracked every in-custody death since 2000 and found at least 416 inmates died in jails and prisons by asking every county in Utah for the information.

“I want the jails to be rethinking those policies and I want the legislators to have that data,” he said, referring to the state’s high inmate death rate, led in part by a large number of suicides. “That might have a very interesting effect. If Davis is doing something remarkable, why not let the other jails know what Davis County is doing?”

The bill would home in on factors that may contribute to a high rate of suicide deaths, which is the most common known cause of death in county jails and often occurs within 72 hours of an inmate’s arrest, according to data analyzed by The Tribune.

Counties would also have to outline their approach to protecting inmates who are withdrawing from opiates and the rules they follow for dispensing prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Jails often follow their own drug formularies that list medications that are approved for inmates, others that require certain oversight and a list of drugs that inmates won’t be provided in a jail.

As of earlier this year, Duchesne County followed three lists guiding employees on administering medications: one list of approved medications; one list that asked employees to call the medical director for approval; and a “not approved list” of drugs. Methadone was on the not approved list.

“I think I’m also going to ask them as part of this legislation to file with us their plan: what is your plan when you arrest someone that tells you or that you know is addicted to opioids?” Weiler said.

After The Tribune wrote about Jensen’s Dec. 1, 2016, death, which led to negligent homicide charges against Jana Clyde, the jail’s nurse, Duchesne County began discussing its procedures for what nurses or officers should do when an inmate shows signs of opiate withdrawal, according to a March 28 document. The draft was written by an assistant working for Kennon Tubbs, a Draper physician who contracts with multiple counties in Utah and Wyoming to oversee their medical capacity.

The draft document shows employees would conduct a nursing assessment, check vital signs, take a drug screen, get a history of the inmate’s drug use and, if the inmate is a woman, conduct a pregnancy test.

DeLand, who works for the Utah Sheriffs’ Association as the jail operations director and guides counties on jail issues, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the possible legislation.

The legislation has the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which has focused on the secret standards and voluntary method of inspections the state’s jails subject themselves to.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Marina Lowe, the group’s legislative and policy counsel, said of Weiler’s proposal.

Weiler, an attorney, said he’s trying to provide appropriate oversight of jails without being heavy handed of the elected sheriffs who oversee them.

“More than two-thirds of the people in our county jails have never been convicted. They’re being held before trial,” Weiler said. “These people are presumed innocent under the eyes of the law.”