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Officials Recommend Better Training, Health Screenings, Funding To Address Utah's Jail Deaths

Davis County Jail.
Whittey Evans / KUER

Following a state-mandated report on the number of deaths in Utah’s jails, officials from county sheriff’s offices, mental health advocates and jail health care workers met at the Capitol on Wednesday to seek solutions.

The report showed that nearly half of the deaths reported by county jails in the last five years took place during the first two weeks of incarceration. Over 50 percent were deaths by suicide. The report recorded, for the first time, the number of county jail deaths, documenting 71 in the last five years.

Borne out of legislation earlier this year from Rep. Carol Spackman Moss (D-Salt Lake) and Sen. Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross), the report was produced by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Lt. John Young, a jail inspector with the Utah Sheriffs Association and jail commander in San Juan County who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said small jails like his lack resources. That, in turn, limits access to experienced health care workers, which makes it difficult to attend to inmates who are at risk of suicide or who have other mental health care needs.

“People coming into jail, they’re in crisis mode already. We’ve taken them from what their crisis mode is and we’ve increased that immensely by locking them up,” Young said.

Wednesday’s meeting, which also comes after widely publicized news reports about deaths of inmates experiencing drug withdrawal in county jails, focused on draft recommendations from stakeholders based on the recent state jail death report. Those included new inmate screenings for substance abuse and mental health disorders, using telehealth technology to connect corrections staff to trained health workers online, and more funding.

“Everything costs money and correctional health care isn’t one of those things that I think legislatures normally rally around,” said Darcy Goddard, chief policy advisor with the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office. “But it’s something that is our constitutional responsibility and these are people who we need to be taking care of while they are in our control.”

The group also called for increased training so that correctional staff could do inmate screenings.

Young said the lack of resources at the San Juan County jail means corrections staff are responsible for the mental health needs of inmates. He was critical of the idea of adding responsibility to staff in what he described as already under-resourced jails.

“I’m not sure I want my corrections staff acting as counselors. I’m not sure I want them acting as medical providers. They’ve got a tough job to do,” Young said.

The new jail recommendations will have to be incorporated into a bill in the coming legislative session, Goddard said. Moss said new legislation has not yet been drafted.

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