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Inmates at risk of suicide in county jails difficult to screen, identify, officials say

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 WASHINGTON COUNTY (ABC4 News) – Suicide is the single most common cause of death in county jails in Utah, according to a report published by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Data shows the vast majority of these deaths occur before inmates are convicted of any crimes.

Breanna Beal of St. George said her close friend Tyler Beshell died by suicide in February 2014 shortly after being booked in the Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility.

“He just smiled so bright and lit up and room that he was in,” Beal said. “I wish I could’ve been there for him, and I wish there was more that I could’ve done.”

Of the 71 inmates who died in Utah county jails from 2013 to 2017, more than half were suicides, and many of these deaths occurred within the first week after inmates were booked, according to the report.

At Purgatory Correctional Facility, staff have implemented a mental health program to address their concerns and say an inmate hasn’t committed suicide at the county jail in more than three years.

Jon Worlton, health services administrator at Purgatory Correctional Facility, said suicide prevention is a team effort. Worlton said the county jail has on-site psychiatric nurse professionals, social workers, and officers trained in crisis intervention.

All inmates go through mental health screenings once they’re booked to identify any risk factors for suicide, he said.

“Whatever the case is, it’s a crisis,” Worlton said. “Sometimes people respond to those crises in drastic ways.”

Worlton added that in many of the suicide cases, inmates hadn’t explicitly expressed thoughts of killing themselves and were more difficult to identify during mental health screenings.

“It’s just a very difficult population to work with and screen very well,” he added.

Staff at Purgatory Correctional Facility estimate 70 to 80 percent of inmates have some kind of substance abuse problem, which can play a huge role in their risk of suicide.

“They’ve been active in their addictions. They may have just used hours before they came to jail,” said Worlton.

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