As lawsuits accumulate, Utah jail inmate screening gains life-or-death focus

Thursday , February 08, 2018 - 5:15 AM

What happens in the first minutes or hours after a person arrives at a county jail can determine the course of the new inmate’s life.

The importance of intake screenings during the booking process has been highlighted by a wave of wrongful-death lawsuits filed by the relatives of misdemeanor arrestees who died soon after going behind bars in Weber and Davis counties.

In response to criticism about screening procedures, Davis County Sheriff Todd Richardson said late last year that his department had tightened its processes. The Davis jail is being sued by the relatives of Heather Miller and Kara Noakes, who died in separate incidents in 2016. The jail is accused of shoddy medical care and insufficient intake screening.

RELATED: Heather Miller’s jail intake sheet was blank, and jail personnel said later they assumed Miller was withdrawing from narcotics

Another arrestee, Gregory Hayes, died in the Davis jail booking area on Dec. 14, 2017.

Meanwhile, the state’s justice system reform team is in the second year of a pilot screening program to identify the top risks an incoming inmate may face, such as substance abuse or mental health problems, and learn what can be done to minimize harm and provide appropriate treatment or counseling.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says 40 percent of jail inmate deaths occur within the first week.

At the Utah Legislature this winter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Todd Weiler of Woods Cross, says a bill he has in the works on jail policies will address the screening issue.

This week, yet another wrongful-death suit was filed.

Ashley Evan Jessop, 35, of Ogden, ended up at McKay-Dee Hospital on Feb. 29, 2016, two days after an Ogden police officer arrested him on suspicion of public intoxication and took him to the Weber County Jail.

Jessop died March 3, 2016. The attending physician listed the cause of death as rhabdomyolysis, acute kidney injury, liver disease and a gastrointestinal bleed.

Rhabdomyolysis is a condition in which damaged muscle tissue breaks down rapidly, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Damaged muscle cells are released into the bloodstream, some harmful to the kidneys, and may lead to kidney failure.

Causes of rhabdomyolysis include liver disease and long-lasting muscle compression such as that caused by prolonged immobilization after a fall or lying unconscious on a hard surface.

Jessop’s screening document, obtained from the jail, shows that Jessop told the screener he was suicidal, was on psychiatric medication and had a history of seizures.

In a U.S. District Court lawsuit filed Monday, Feb. 5, 2018, against Weber County and Ogden City, an attorney for Jessop’s mother, Michelle Shafer of Hooper, said the arresting police officer and jail screening personnel ignored warning signs that Jessop needed close monitoring and care.

Once the inmate was processed into the jail, corrections officers and nurses did nothing to help Jessop after he began showing signs of distress, said the suit filed by attorney Shane Gosdis.

Then, Jessop was left on the floor of a cell for up to 24 hours before personnel noticed he was largely unresponsive, the suit said.

“There were major red flags,” Gosdis said in an interview.

“From what I can tell, he was passed out for 24 hours (with) those deteriorating muscles, and that’s what killed him,” Gosdis said.

“If these guys had even been giving the minimal amounts of care, he wouldn’t have died,” the attorney said. “He should have been on mental or medical care watch, and he wasn’t.”

Weber County Sheriff’s Lt. Joshua Marigoni, spokesman for the corrections division, confirmed Tuesday that Jessop suffered a medical episode and was hospitalized, but he declined to comment further because of the litigation.

Jessop should have been taken to a hospital, not jail, when he was arrested, his mother said in an interview.

“He was an epileptic,” and told the officer of his medical problems, Shafer said.

“They didn’t have to take him to jail,” she said. “They could have taken him to the hospital and put a guard on his room.”

The Standard-Examiner has requested a copy of the Ogden Police Department’s incident report but it had not been released by Tuesday.

Weber County’s jail policies “place suicidal inmates at risk of death because they are insufficient; improperly implemented; and/or otherwise not followed by the … employees,” the lawsuit said.

Story continues below photo.

Improving screening of jail inmates is a key element of Utah’s 2-year-old Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

A statewide jail screening program had screened nearly 73,000 inmates by December 2017, said Doreen Weyland, the initiative’s coordinator for the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The program focuses on those being booked on Class B misdemeanor charges — a large group of mostly nonviolent offenders.

“This is a big deal because we have no idea what that population looks like,” Weyland said.

“It helps to identify low-risk, low-need individuals,” she said.

One precept of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is to quit jailing and imprisoning people who are not a major public safety threat.

Low-risk offenders need better assessment at the point of jailing, she said.

“Should they be in jail, or be put back into family support? Will they show up for court? Maybe all they need is a wake-up call.”

People booked into jail for failure to appear in court on minor offenses are another low-risk group, but one whose members included at least two jail fatalities in recent years — Noakes, and Rex Iverson, who told friends he would kill himself if he ever went back to jail.

Iverson was picked up for ignoring a court order to pay an ambulance bill. He took poison and died in a Box Elder County Jail holding cell during booking.

PROJECT: Investigating Northern Utah jail deaths

Just improving the initial assessment of an inmate’s risk level will help, Weyland said.

For example, Davis Behavioral Health, which provides mental health services at the Davis County Jail, now has access to the Justice Reinvestment Initiative screening reports. That can hasten further evaluation and treatment of at at-risk inmate.

The reports also help corrections staffs avoid grouping low-risk inmates with high-risk inmates, who often are repeat offenders with a likelihood of repeat law-breaking.

Courts now have access to the reports, which can be used to divert offenders into drug court or treatment programs.

The Weber County Jail agreed to become a screening hub for the program. Trained screeners do video-conference screening of inmates in several other jails in the region, Weyland said.

According to the initative’s 2017 annual report, more than two-thirds of Utah's arrested population is moderate (49 percent) or high (18 percent) risk to re-offend. About half need further assessment for substance abuse and 40 percent need further mental health assessment.

About a third of those screened needed further assessment for both substance abuse and mental health problems.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/SEMarkShenefelt.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

2018 Standard-Examiner Readers' Choice Vote
×