The Justice Files: Calls for reform in Utah jails

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) –  David Walker was suicidal and in jail. According to his attorney, Walker sought medical help from those in charge of the Salt Lake County jail.

“All he got was a brochure on suicide prevention,” said attorney Rocky Anderson.
Days later, Walker committed suicide.

Anderson is now pressing government officials to change policies at the Salt Lake County jail.  He represented the family of Lisa Ostler who died while in custody of the jail.  

“All they had to do was give her a little medical attention,” said her father Calvin Ostler. “They wouldn’t do it.”

She died three days after being arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. Her father said Ostler had Crohn’s disease and was getting worse while in jail.  

“She screamed in pain for three days, said the father.  “We had inmates calling us it was the most horrific seen they had ever seen.”

The family claimed in a lawsuit the jail staff refused to give her any medical treatment for her condition.  

Something similar happened to Madison Jensen who died in the Duchesne County jail.  Her family claimed she received no medical treatment for her drug withdrawals and died three days after she’s first brought into jail.  A nurse who oversaw her treatment is now facing criminal charges related to her death.

“When you saw how she passed away and how things happened it’s pretty hurtful and to the community and to her friends and everybody that was associated with her,” said her father Jared Jensen.  “It was just a devastating time.  Something needs to be done.”

Anderson said these cases are examples of why, per capita, the deaths in Utah jails are the worst in the nation.

“That is something to be really ashamed of,” Anderson said.  “That’s a total failure on the part of our policy makers, our legislators.  It’s a total failure on the part of our jail administrators.” 

The Ostlers recently reached a near $1 million settlement with the county over the death of their daughter.  Her father said at the outset, they never asked for money.

“In our lawsuit, the first several offers that we went forward with had no money attached to it,” Ostler said.  “There were written officers where we were talking about changes in the jail.”

But he said those at the other end of the table refused to even consider the topic of jail reform.

Anderson said taxpayers should be outraged over the way the county settles these cases without making any effort to change the way things are done at the jail.

“They just want to pay you off and make you go away,”  Anderson said.  “Well, we’re not going away.”

He is pushing for an independent audit for every in-custody death that has occurred.  He said whether it is another county agency, the state auditor or even the legislature but it must be done.  Anderson said the status quo is not working.  He was referring to the Salt Lake County jail’s own review process.

“The morbidity and mortality committees that they have, the review process that they have, we believe is a total sham,” he said. 

And he questions why the district attorney won’t prosecute alleged wrong doing.  Anderson said medical charts were altered and guards are negligent by turning the other cheek when there’s a cry for help.

“I know of one instance where a housing officer (quit) because she said it was killing her soul when she would try to treat inmates with respect and compassion and be laughed at (by other deputies),” Anderson said.

A spokesperson for the Salt Lake County jail said Sheriff Rosie Rivera was still reviewing Anderson’s lengthy complaint and would provide a statement next week.  But Salt Lake Attorney Sim Gill whose office defended the jail in the Ostler lawsuit said the jail is making strides in the right direction.

“What ever the reality was in 2016, is not the reality in 2020,” Gill said.  “The sheriff has taken to heart all the pre-litigation, post litigation a commitment to improving process.  There have always been changes that have been sought and made.”

Gill said he could not be specific about the changes made at the jail because it was part of the negotiated settlement between the county and Ostler.

But Calvin Ostler said he is unaware of any changes the county promised to make.  That’s why he supports the latest effort by Anderson and said everyone should be aware of what could happen if one goes to jail.

“If you don’t think this can happen to you, think again,”  Ostler said.  “All you have to do is make one mistake, perhaps fail to pay for a speeding ticket and end up there.  And your loved one could end up dead out there.”

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