Madison Jensen, 21: dehydration.
Troy Bradshaw, 37: suicide and lack of medication.
Hailee Ashton Miller, 28: split spleen and blunt force trauma.
Matthew Hall, 31: neck fracture and paralyzation.
The list goes on and on. All of these Utahns have one thing in common: they died in state custody.
Since the year 2000, over 400 people have died in jails and prisons across Utah, most of them from suicide. Although they have been and will continue to be used in numerical statistics and percentages, it is important to recognize the person behind the number. Each of these 400+ people represent an individual whose life had value and meaning before it was taken from them. Some of them were never even charged or convicted of a crime before they passed.
Standards and safety protocols are presumably in place in every county jail to ensure inmates are treated humanely with healthy living conditions. But with an average of 23 inmate deaths per year, questions surrounding those accountability standards have justifiably arisen. What are in the standards? Who came up with them and decided they are satisfactory? Who is making sure they are properly enforced?
Concerned residents alongside organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah (ACLU) have tried to answer these questions and have found many dead ends. What is known is that behind many of the policies and enforcement standards of county jails is a man named Gary DeLand. DeLand is the former director of Utah’s Department of Corrections who authored the jail standards being used by jails across the state.
The ACLU of Utah has requested these standards created by DeLand, but the county sheriffs refused to release them. This means this power is ultimately concentrated in the hands of one man—who copyrighted the standards used in public jails—and hidden from the public.
Because these practices are hidden, no independent observer can make sure jails are being held accountable with proper measures to ensure health and safety protocols are in place and are being met. Because jails are public entities, paid for with taxpayer dollars, Utahns should absolutely have access to this basic safety information.
This shouldn’t be taken lightly—safety standards could mean the difference between life or death for some inmates.
To address some of these major concerns, Senator Todd Weiler will be running legislation to require county jails to report the death of all inmates on an annual basis. This list can be compared to the jail’s safety policies to determine potential failures in protocol and accountability.
The bill will also address how unhealthy people who enter into custody are treated—specifically people who enter while having drug withdrawals. It will require counties to have a plan in place for stopping and/or continuing medication. The list of approved medications for inmates will also be released as a part of this bill. Then, work can be done to improve this list to ensure inmates will be able to properly manage their medical conditions.
Once this information is gathered, problems can be addressed more accurately and counties will be able to more easily exchange information based on what is working or not. The ultimate goal is to reverse the high number of deaths occurring in state custody. But until we know exactly what’s occurring behind closed doors, there’s no effective way to move forward with needed change.