Tribune Editorial: For Utah prisoners, the doctor is not in

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Doctor K.C. Tubbs checks on an inmate in an examination room in the infirmary of the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah Wednesday, August 8, 2012.

It seems a foregone conclusion that if a person is under state care, then the state will actually provide care. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Many county jails in Utah are not providing adequate, or even any, medical care to inmates. Even if prisoners weren’t dying because of it, which they are, medical care must be available as needed.

Madison Jensen died in the Duchesne County jail as a direct result of inadequate health care. State medical examiners have concluded that she died from cardiac arrhythmia brought on by dehydration, which occurred during an opiate withdrawal. “[M]edical experts say her death was avoidable, if treated earlier.”

Jensen had lost at least 17 pounds in four days. Her cell was coated with vomit and diarrhea. She couldn’t keep down Gatorade or water. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand she needed IV fluids. But unfortunately for Jensen, the once-a-week physician assistant visited after she was already dead.

Nine of the state’s counties contract with a limited liability company responsible for the care of hundreds of inmates across both Utah and Wyoming. The company has crafted care plans within each county’s budget, including the once-a-week visit model, whether the care is adequate or not. In fact, it is not.

Even worse, many of these jails do not have a nurse on staff. Juab County has no nurse on staff. Wasatch County just recently hired a staff nurse.

The Duchesne County Commission recently voted to fund a staff nurse. Yet the chairman insists the new hire is “in no way a reaction to what’s happened in the past,” referring to Jensen as well as two other inmates who have died in the county’s jail in the past two years. The new hire should be a reaction to the deaths. If it isn’t, what exactly has Duchesne County done to ameliorate its obvious problem?

The county will likely end up spending much more money in a settlement with the Jensen family than it would have spent on adequate medical care. Money shouldn’t be the driving factor when it comes to basic necessities like health care.

Utah has the highest rate of county inmate deaths per capita in the most recent year such statistics were available. That is shameful. The state, and each county, is responsible to treat its inmates humanely.

A young woman, begging for help, suffering from a drug withdrawal, which the jail exacerbated by withholding regular antidepressant medication, should never be left to die. Are we monsters?