Tribune Editorial: Secret jail standards and audits don’t count

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary DeLand, former Salt Lake County jail administrator, talks during a news conference from The Utah Sheriffs' Association responding to pressure to see the guidelines every jail in Utah follows to run jails and protect inmates. The news conference was held at the Utah Capitol Presentation Room in Salt Lake City Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.

Imagine yourself as a high school student who has convinced the chemistry teacher that you should be allowed to compose your own final exam, grade it yourself and not tell the teacher what score you got. Or even what the questions were.

But that you should get an A for the course. Because you said so.

That might help some of us with those recurring I-forgot-to-study dreams that plague us years after graduation. But it is no way to run any public agency or facility, least of all a jail.

Investigations by journalists at The Salt Lake Tribune and the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, as well as lawsuits brought by the families of the frightening number of people who have died in one or another of the state’s jails, have turned up one problem that no one has denied or tried to conceal.

That problem was that, for many years, the standards that county jails hold themselves and their employees to have been secret. Which, for all intents and purposes, mean that those jails are operated without any standards at all.

If the members of the public who pay for those jails, who expect them to operate efficiently and humanely, and who may find themselves or a loved one confined in one of them, can’t check to see if the jails are meeting their own standards, then those standards might as well not exist.

Under pressure from the reporters, the lawyers and, recently, an act of the Utah Legislature, the cloud of secrecy is slowly dissipating.

The Utah Sheriff’s Association recently ended years of secrecy to post the basic standards it uses online. To do that, the association had to push Gary DeLand, former boss of the Utah Department of Corrections and author of the book of jail standards for Utah and several other states, to give up his claim that the rules were copyrighted and private.

That secrecy never made any sense. Sure, DeLand might claim it wouldn’t be fair to him if other jurisdictions were allowed to just copy his work without paying him for his efforts and expertise. But when it was admitted that one reason for the secrecy was that public knowledge of the standards would make it easier for lawyers to sue jails and sheriffs for mistreating inmates, it became clear that the point of the secrecy was to make it less dangerous for jails to mistreat inmates.

To their credit, the Legislature was concerned enough to pass — and Gov. Gary Herbert has signed — Senate Bill 205. That requires jails to report to the state all deaths in custody and to develop and report procedures for treating inmates for the chemical addictions many of them suffer, and for dispensing medicine to inmates.

Next should be legislation that makes it clear that jail standards — and inspections and audits — are to be made public as well.

We don’t want people just walking out of our jails. But we have to be able to look in.