Over the past year this newspaper has focused important news coverage on the unfortunate consequences of nonuniform and insufficient jail standards used by county jails across Utah.
We have covered seemingly preventable deaths 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. Similarly, the December 2016 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.
This paper also has covered the use of aggressive jail policies and the shroud of secrecy that surrounds them — and, at their worst, the shocking practices in the Daggett County jail where guards terrorized inmates with attack dogs and stun guns.
According to the most recent report available by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Utah in 2014 was the state with the highest rate of jail inmate deaths. Data obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune indicated 11 inmates died in 2015 and 23 in 2016.
Many county jails in Utah use standards created by former corrections director Gary DeLand. When asked, DeLand refused to disclose his standards to the public, or even to legislators trying to study prison safety. He claimed they were protected proprietary information.
The secrecy prompted more questions, and more review, by state and county officials. Prisoner advocates and legislators joined in The Tribune’s questioning of the secret standards and their wanting effectiveness. Sen. Todd Weiler, especially, pushed back against the idea of publicly funded standards that could not be disclosed.
Late last week state prison officials and sheriffs throughout Utah announced they would be rewriting jail standards to be used throughout the state. More important, they will be making those standards public for the first time.
Tribune reporter Taylor Anderson wrote, “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.”
It seems more than obvious that jails across the state should be protecting inmates according to minimum standards that can be reviewed at any time. Every county jail, and the state prison system, should plan on adopting the new standards.
The government has a responsibility to keep inmates physically and mentally safe. The purpose is not to harm, but to rehabilitate.