After years of operating under standards that were kept secret by the private contractor who wrote them, Utah’s prison boss and sheriffs announced Friday the state would rewrite hundreds of guidelines most jails follow and make them public for the first time.
The Utah Department of Corrections will also develop new standards that guide day-to-day functions within state prisons.
Under the agreement, new guidelines will be followed at county jails that collectively hold more than 1,600 state prisoners — about a quarter of Utah’s total prison population. Most counties in the state contract with the Department of Corrections to hold state inmates.
The decision comes after a rash of inmate deaths put the spotlight on county jails. Utah had the nation’s highest rate of jail inmate fatalities in 2014, and two dozen inmates died in 2016, according to data obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Counties for years have followed copyrighted standards written by Gary W. DeLand, the former Utah prison boss whose business model as a private contractor includes training jail guards and sheriffs in addition to selling his standards to various counties and states. He is also paid a daily rate of $2,400 to be an expert witness, almost always for corrections officials who are sued.
DeLand has worked to keep attorneys and the public from knowing the guidelines for inmates, many of whom are awaiting trial and haven’t yet been convicted of a crime.
Prisoner advocates, legislators and jail experts applauded the effort to provide some transparency to the state’s jails.
“We feel like this is a win for the public and for transparency,” said Aaron Kinikini, legal director for the Disability Law Center. “It’s a step in the right direction. It signals that there was some fire where all of us were smelling smoke.”
After The Tribune wrote about DeLand’s agreement with Utah, he held a news conference at which he said his standards were some of the nation’s best but they needed to be kept confidential.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, welcomed the announcement.
“I’ve very uncomfortable that we have taxpayer-supported facilities with taxpayer-paid-for standards that are secret,” Weiler said. “I’m just uncomfortable with the status quo that we are operating our jails with these secret standards that nobody can see.”
Under the new agreement among DeLand, sheriffs and the state, a group will rewrite the standards that will be public.
“That’s just good public policy,” said Rod Miller, a Pennsylvania-based jail expert whose nonprofit wrote core jail standards that are copyrighted but free for the public and available online. “It’s amazing that they got away with it so long.”
Miller said he was approached by the Michigan insurance pool to analyze DeLand’s standards. DeLand prevented that from happening after Miller refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement, Miller said.
DeLand didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Grand County Sheriff Steve White, who is the president of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, and Aaron Kennard, the group’s executive director, didn’t respond to messages for comment.
It’s not clear whether the counties will also rewrite and make all of DeLand’s 600 standards public. The state requires counties that hold prisoners to follow about 260 of those 600 standards. In the statement, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association said it would make the DeLand standards available on its website, but it wasn’t immediately clear if it was referring to the existing standards or the new ones.
“The Utah Sheriffs’ Association negotiated an agreement with DeLand and Associates, Inc., to make the Utah Jail Standards available publicly on the Utah Sheriffs’ Association’s website,” the statement said.
Maria Peterson, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said there wasn’t yet a timeline for producing the new standards. A commission will be put together to determine the next steps.
“Our intention is these new standards will comply with the Constitution, but will also go beyond minimum requirements to provide the most secure, efficient and well-managed facilities possible,” Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook said in a statement.