This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
After a monthslong state investigation, an ex-sheriff in Daggett County and four deputies were charged in May with sadistically abusing inmates.
The law enforcement officers are accused of zapping inmates with stun guns, and if they could withstand the jolt for five seconds, the jailers would buy them soda. The sheriff, according to charges, didn't investigate the conduct and gave false information to investigators.
In the aftermath, the state Department of Corrections pulled all of its inmates out of the Daggett jail for their own protection.
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Anderson has been chronicling that disturbing case and the deaths of jail inmates, including those like Madison Jensen, who was booked into the Duchesne County jail on drug charges in November. Her pleas for medical help were ignored, and she shed 17 pounds in four days and was eventually found dead in her cell.
The same month charges were filed in Daggett County, the state cleared the Davis County jail of wrongdoing in the death of Heather Miller, a 28-year-old woman whose spleen was torn nearly in half by blunt force that jailers said was caused by a fall.
As Anderson found, 416 Utahns have died in custody since 2000.
It's an alarming statistic raising serious questions about the standards of care inmates receive, and it begs for careful scrutiny and a re-evaluation of the way the state utilizes county facilities.
In a state that has historically eschewed private prisons that others have been quick to embrace, Utah counties, starting in the 1990s, have built their own money-making industry on warehousing humans.
"It's a business model," said Marina Lowe, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which is pushing for changes. "When we're talking about confining individuals and that being almost like a guaranteed income [stream] on the basis of housing inmates, that's problematic."
Daggett County, for example, has an 86-bed facility and uses about six for its own needs, renting the other 80 to the state and making about $1.2 million per year that is, until the state pulled its inmates amid the abuse scandal.
Beaver County has a jail with nearly 400 beds, and it uses just 16. State taxpayers pay more than $6 million per year to rent many of the beds.
Historically, the jails have been with inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent standards of inmate care.
Beaver is one of five jails that offer substance abuse treatment. And just two offer sex offender treatment. Until recently, there really were no state-level standards on what sort of programming or medical care inmates would receive and the standards that are in place are little more than vague recommendations.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, is chairman of the committee that sets the prison budget and says using county jails has benefits it can keep inmates close to their families and support networks, and it reconnects them to their communities. But the state has been pumping more money into county jails in recent years, and, if inmates aren't getting the treatment they need or, worse, are being subjected to poor conditions, "it almost becomes counterproductive."
"If the whole point is, 'More money, more money, more money,' and we're not getting more services, at some point, that doesn't make much sense for us from the state side, and I think we're at that point," he said. "That is not how we do things anymore."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Bountiful, said the recent reports about conditions in county jails, particularly the Daggett case, are disconcerting, and he is at the beginning of the learning process, but he may push the department to do more.
"I'm concerned about the rates of death in our incarcerated population. Some of those are natural causes, a lot of those are suicides, some of those are accidents," he said. "I don't know that legislation is needed, but I am interested in some standards and learning more about inspections … and accountability."
Gov. Gary Herbert, the Department of Corrections and the Legislature have huge leverage to bring county jails up to the level they need to be: Taxpayers pay about $48.5 million each year to house state inmates in the jails. They should use that as a carrot to bring about the changes that are needed.
In the best case, sending state inmates to the counties could be a mutually beneficial relationship, but only if we get to the point where the inmates are getting the treatment and care they need to return them to being productive members of society.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story included an inaccurate number for how much Utah spends to incarcerate state inmates in county jails. The Legislature has budgeted about $48.5 million for that purpose this year.