DAVIS COUNTY (ABC4 News) – As South Salt Lake police investigate the exact cause of death for a former Weber State University football player who died at the Salt Lake County Jail last week, ABC4 News looked into what the state and one of the county jails are doing about the high inmate death rate.
According to data by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), 71 inmates have died in Utah jails between 2013 to 2017. Out of that number, 54 percent died by suicide, 23 percent died from an illness, 6 percent died from alcohol or drug intoxication, 1 percent from an accident, and 17 percent from another or unknown cause.
The data compiled by Utah CCJJ was a result of SB 205 – passed by lawmakers in 2018 requiring Utah jails to report in-custody inmate deaths, treatment policies for inmates with substance or alcohol addiction, and medications dispensed to an inmate during incarceration.
The law allows the state to oversee the inmate health care system and receive recommendations for legislation from the Utah Substance Use and Mental Health Advisory Council.
Officials at Davis County Jail are doing their own research as well. The Sheriff’s Office established an advisory committee to conduct a life safety study within their facility. This came more than a year after a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the jail in the death of a 21-year-old inmate in 2016.
“The goal of this committee is to alleviate any condition which may contribute unnecessarily to serious illness, injury, or death within the jail, and to identify any physical, procedural, or other changes that may improve the safety and well-being of inmates or staff within the facility,” according to a press release from Davis County Sheriff’s Office.
In 2016, Utah led the nation in the highest inmate death rate. When asked about possible reasons, Chief Deputy Arnold Butcher said it may be related to the state’s mental health crisis.
“Utah’s also one of the highest suicide rates in the nation as well and I would think that’s obviously going to coincide with your jail populations,” he said.
Another possibility is the need for additional resources and staff.
“That’s always going to be something you’re going to hear from corrections is ‘we need more people, we need more equipment,'” he said.
Davis County Jail’s advisory committee is looking at critical incidents that occurred in the past eight to 1 years to identify what, if any, alternative procedures might have a more positive outcome on future incidents.
“I think it’s important for the public to understand that we take every life in our hands, whether that’s in-custody or out-of-custody very seriously,” said Butcher. “These are individuals who are our neighbors. They are people from our community and the majority of these people are going to be back in our communities.”
Additionally, the committee will be developing recommendations to address how to effectively provide medical care to inmates, many of whom are suffering from drug and/or alcohol addiction that have symptoms that often mask more serious medical conditions.
“Not everybody that comes to jail is necessarily in the best condition. A lot of them have life struggles. There’s instances of addiction. We face a lot of mental health issues and those people are entrusted into our care,” said Chief Deputy Butcher.
He said the committee is currently in the fact-finding and information gathering stage. It will probably take a year for them to complete their research and another year to come up with their recommendation plan.
Davis County Jail is also developing its medical wing, which would add nearly two dozen cells to their facility. Butcher said the county has identified the funding sources that they need and are currently working to get an architectural and design study done.
“We basically identified that the medical facility that we currently have wasn’t designed and set up for the demographics we’re facing nowadays. We’re obviously facing more of the withdrawals and the overdoses and the mental health issues,” said Chief Deputy Butcher. “We need a facility that is designed more around our ability to care for those types of inmates.”