Audit slaps Utah prison system for poor oversight of jails where it sends inmates

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Daggett County jail in 2007.

Utah’s prison system poorly monitors the jails where it sends state inmates and has no standards for those lockups, according to a state audit released Thursday.

The audit also cast blame on the Utah Department of Corrections for inmate abuses at the now-closed Daggett County jail. Corrections did not detect problems such as guards torturing inmates until they were so apparent that the department removed all 80 inmates it housed there, the audit said.

Then-Sheriff Jerry Jorgensen and four of his deputies eventually pleaded guilty to crimes.

(Courtesy photo | Utah governor's office) Mike Haddon is the new director of the Utah Department of Corrections.

The auditors found Daggett County was an example of a systemic problem in the Department of Corrections. The department conducts safety inspections to ensure jails have proper operating equipment, such as modern control rooms, transparent panels where inmates are housed, and devices for guards.

Those inspections “do little to address inmate abuse,” auditors wrote, “the exchange of favors, and improper relationships between jail staff and state inmates.”

Even after discovering what went on in Daggett County, the department “failed to employ monitoring methods that would increase the likelihood of detecting and preventing similar inappropriate activities at other contract jails.”

That’s because when Corrections did write a 52-page report on problems in Daggett County, that document was not shared with the department staff responsible for ensuring county jails treat inmates humanely, auditors found.

Auditors also said they were “concerned” that the department does not adequately train those doing jail safety inspections. Those inspectors are not using standards created by the U.S. Department of Justice.

To illustrate deficiencies in the inspections, the auditors pointed to two successful — and one unsuccessful — escape attempts from the same county jail from 2007 to 2018. In all three cases, inmates climbed the same section of fence in a recreation yard next to a jail building. The jail was not identified in the report, but the description matches the Beaver County jail.

“If security had been sufficiently hardened after the first escape,” auditors wrote, “the second and third incidents may not have occurred.”

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Former Daggett County Sheriff Jerry Jorgensen, front left, huddles with lawyers and former jail commander Lt. Benjamin Lail, right, in Third District Court in Park City Monday July 17 before Judge Kent Holmberg on charges connected to the abuse of jail inmates at the Daggett County jail. A third person charged at far left is Deputy Joshua Cox.

Auditors recommended adoption of set standards and better training for inspectors. They also urged the Department of Corrections use more video from inside the jails to corroborate that jailers are conducting the inmate checks they are logging, and that inspectors conduct more interviews of inmates and jail staff to ask about what is happening there.

The department had its own internal review system capable of identifying problems in jails, and auditors said those staffers were underutilized. Their two reviews of county jails, conducted since 2008, found staffers focused on the issues of nutrition for inmate work crews and medical copayments.

“We are concerned,” auditors wrote, “that significant events that have occurred over the past decade, including several escapes, inmate abuse, and inappropriate jail staff and inmate relationships, have not triggered an audit or other review” of the county jail program.

In a response published with the audit, Department of Corrections Director Mike Haddon said his office was relying upon standards created by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association to ensure the Daggett County jail was functioning properly.

Haddon, who was a deputy administrator in the department when the abuses happened in Daggett County, also wrote that he decided to remove the person in charge of his department’s inmate placement program, which directs state inmates to county jails.

“Although we believe the audit overstates the lack of briefings regarding two county jails," Haddon said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon, "the recommendations are on point and either have already been adopted or we are in the process of implementation.

"We acknowledge that the lapses occurred, and the department is pleased with the direction of new correctional standards, developed in collaboration with the Utah Sheriffs’ Association, that will provide a level of openness and transparency to the public that was historically lacking, thus creating concern from policymakers, the media and advocacy groups.”

Since 1988, the Department of Corrections has used county jails to house inmates who do not fit into its prisons in Draper and Gunnison. Nineteen counties currently contract with the department to provide jail space, the audit says, bringing jobs to rural regions.

In fiscal 2019, the Utah Legislature allocated $31 million for 1,560 jail beds for state inmates. That amounts to a quarter of all inmates sentenced to state prison. Jails are paid for every state inmate they house.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The men's max cell unit area takes shape as crews move a side by side single-occupancy cell block, stacking them into place at the new state prison in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

The new prison being built in west Salt Lake City will have 3,600 beds — slightly more than the Draper prison it is replacing. Inmates are scheduled to start moving to the new prison in January 2022.

The audit did not address the concerns expressed by the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, a group of inmate family members and others concerned about the well-being of the incarcerated. In a document published in October, UPAN complained inmates typically lose their personal property when they are transferred between prisons and jails, funds in commissary accounts are slow to follow the inmates, and jails often do not have adequate educational, recreation and craft opportunities.

UPAN also said that when inmates are transferred back to a prison from jails, they typically have to start over at the lowest level of privileges, which can include visitation and recreation opportunities, even if they had good behavior the first time at the prison and in the jails.

Molly Prince, a UPAN co-founder, said Thursday she is thankful for the audit and agrees with its findings, though she’s disappointed auditors didn’t consider UPAN’s concerns.

“I hope there can be a safe process in the future for inmates to report abuse and things that are going on,” Prince said, “because I think what happens is administration just always doesn’t know what’s going on down in the trenches.”