Several deaths in 2016 in the Davis County jail system, including the death of Heather Ashton Miller after she fell from a top bunk and was left alone to bleed out from a severely damaged spleen, alarmed Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson. As they should have.
Richardson realized he had a problem, studied possible solutions and is now implementing better practices. That is how government should work.
A recent surge of inmate deaths in Utah jails prompted the improved jail standards. According to the most recent report available by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more inmates died in Utah jails in 2014 than in any other state. And the Associated Press reported, “Records gathered by the Standard-Examiner show at least 24 deaths involving Utah jails occurred in 2016, a 17-year high.”
We’ve argued recently that inmate safety needs to be a priority for Utah jail officials and for lawmakers. “If county jails won’t be transparent with their standards and policies, then it’s time Utah legislators write their own jail standards and mandate minimum compliance.”
Davis County is stepping up. Jail improvements in Davis include more detailed requirements upon initial screening, additional training for nurses and jail staff and a specific policy against “deliberate indifference” toward inmate health and safety. That one seems like a no-brainer.
Other improvements include more staff trained as emergency medical technicians and faster security procedures for emergency personnel responding to emergencies inside the jails.
The Legislature is responding as well. Sen. Todd Weiler is drafting a bill that would require county jails to report the number of jail deaths annually and which, if any, medications they refuse to administer. The December death of Madison Jensen was likely exacerbated by the Duchesne County jail’s failure to give her her regular pain and anxiety medications. She lost at least 17 pounds in four days.
Weiler also wants to require jails to report how they handle opioid drugs. He commented, “The most important aspect [of the proposed legislation] is ensuring that Utah’s jails are adequately addressing inmates addicted to opioids.”
Weiler is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has done a lot of work to improve Utah’s criminal justice system. Inmate safety should be part of that overhaul.
Many county jails in Utah use standards created by former corrections director Gary DeLand. DeLand refuses to disclose his standards to the public, or even to legislators studying prison safety. He claims his standards are protected proprietary information.
This lack of transparency will hopefully prompt the Legislature to get more involved in inmate safety.