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The Salt Lake County sheriff on Tuesday said his jail is making it easier to force-feed after an inmate died of starvation and dehydration this winter.
Sheriff Jim Winder said the changes are not yet written but already have been instituted in practice. Any staff member who realizes an inmate isn't eating can inform superiors, Winder said, who then notify health professionals and quickly determine how to proceed.
If professionals and jail administration decide the inmate needs to be force-fed, jail staff will pursue a court order, Winder said.
The previous procedures required specific staff to make note of a hunger strike and initiate a staff discussion about how to proceed. Winder said the old procedures for force-feeding appear to have been designed for rational inmates who launch hunger strikes as a form of protest.
"In the future we will be acting much quicker," Winder said.
But Winder said he cannot recall the Salt Lake County Jail ever having to force-feed an inmate. Previous inmate hunger strikes have lasted just a few days, he said.
Carlos Umana, a 20-year-old from Magna who was awaiting trial on attempted murder charges, died at the jail on Feb. 27. Umana was 5 feet 3 inches tall and at least 180 pounds when he entered jail in late October. He weighed 77 pounds at his autopsy, his family has said.
A medical examiner's report, which Umana's family shared with The Tribune, said Umana died of starvation and dehydration and his mental illness may have been a contributing factor. His family said Umana had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and had been off his medication.
Before going to jail, Umana worried people were poisoning him and he ate only food he had prepared. He stabbed his mother's boyfriend in the back while that man was preparing a meal. Court documents say Umana told police he thought his mother's boyfriend was going to kill him.
On Tuesday, Umana's cousin, Crystal Moreno, said she takes the jail policy changes as a sign they made a mistake with Umana. Moreno said the staff was aware Umana was mentally ill and was losing weight.
"They knew the problem because they were also calling us, telling us that he hasn't [had] a shower, that he hasn't been eating," Moreno said.
Winder declined to answer some questions about Umana, including if he was taking any medications for mental illness while in the jail. Winder said the jail does forcibly medicate some inmates.
Winder said Umana died as the jail was waiting on mental health professionals to determine whether Umana was making a rational decision not to eat.
"The decision to force medicate with this particular gentleman probably came a little late," Winder said. "There was more of an inclination to ensure that we were letting this person express their desire, and the real question was, how long can we let that go on?"
Umana was communicating with jail staff 15 or 20 minutes before he was found unconscious in his cell, Winder said.
"Had we had a statement that [Umana] was near death, we certainly would have taken actions," Winder said. "The demise of this gentleman was unexpected."