This is our chance to do something about jail deaths in Utah

Sunday , March 04, 2018 - 4:30 AM


 Four days.

That’s how much time is left in the General Session.

And that’s how time remains to end the secrecy surrounding jail deaths in Utah.

Four days.

If we miss this opportunity, it will take at least another year to begin holding sheriffs accountable for the safety of their prisoners.

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Utah leads the nation in per capita jail deaths, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. But the most recent numbers date from 2014, and Utah does not require sheriffs to report in-custody deaths.

So in 2016, when at least 24 prisoners died in Utah jails, nobody knew until Mark Shenefelt, a reporter for the Standard-Examiner, assembled the numbers.

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Shenefelt discovered Utah hadn’t recorded that many in-custody deaths in at least 17 years. He also found that a third of those 24 deaths occurred in Northern Utah — six in the Davis County Jail, and two in Weber County.

Additionally, he learned that in Weber and Davis, the sheriffs didn’t include four deaths in their official totals — two apiece — because doctors pronounced those prisoners dead at area hospitals.

  • RELATED: “Bill requires Utah jail death documentation, closes 'in-custody' reporting gap”

Yet no one knew about the 2016 surge in prisoner deaths because, essentially, prisoners die in secret. Nothing compels sheriffs to announce an in-custody death when it happens, nor does the state demand an annual mortality report from each jail, similar to the one compiled nationally by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Sen. Todd Weiler, a Woods Cross Republican, set out to change that with Senate Bill 205. Weiler’s bill requires sheriffs to submit an annual report o to the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, documenting every in-custody death, its cause, and jail policies on opioid treatment.

SB 205 also compels sheriffs to document a deceased prisoner’s medication history, including prescriptions the jail withheld.

“Most deaths are suicides, and many of these deaths occur because people are being forced to detox without any treatment or services or help,” Weiler told the Senate.

And when prisoners die at hospitals, SB 205 requires sheriffs to count them as in-custody deaths. No more loading fatally injured inmates into ambulances with promise-to-appear notices and insisting they didn’t die as your prisoners, as Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson tried with Heather Ashton Miller.

Miller, in jail less than 48 hours, suffered a blow so severe it nearly split her spleen. Richardson’s department insisted she didn’t die in custody because she was transported to a hospital, although the paper releasing her wasn’t processed until after her death Dec. 21, 2016.

“Some of the jails have said, ‘Well, they didn't die at our facility; they died at the hospital, so we don't have to count that. I’m saying, yeah, you do have to count that,” who told Shenefelt he’d documented another 27 in-custody deaths in the first seven months of 2017.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah endorsed SB 205.

“We support this in our long journey to obtain transparency in how inmates are cared for in our jails and prisons,” testified Marina Lowe, an ACLU official. “The public has a right to know how and whether the constitutional rights of inmates are being respected.”

  • RELATED: “Jail deaths reporting bill advances to Utah Senate”

So did the Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“We think this legislation can prevent more inmate deaths. It will give the state more insight into what is going on behind jails’ walls so we can address any problems that we find with future legislation. It requires transparency and accountability,” said Molly Davis, a Libertas policy analyst.

The Senate agreed, approving the bill Feb. 28 on a 27-0 vote. Now it has four days to win approval first by the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, then the House.

No one deserves to die in jail, especially someone awaiting trial on a minor charge — someone who has not been convicted of the crime for which they were arrested.

But they are dying in jail, and their survivors are filing massive lawsuits.

Utahns needs to learn about in-custody deaths in real time so they can demand immediate action to save prisoner lives. SB 205 is a start, however; it enables the public to see patterns as they develop annually — and at the very least, it gives people information they can use to create safer jails.

SB 205 allows Utahns to hold sheriffs responsible for the safety of their prisoners. It needs to become law this year.

There’s no time to lose.

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