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Investigating The Many Deaths In Utah's Jails


More inmates die in Utah prisons per capita than any other state in the nation. But lawmakers, families and advocates have had a tough time finding out why that's happening. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Whittney Evans has our story.

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Jared Jensen's daughter Madison was booked into jail on minor drug charges in November of last year. Four days later, the 21-year-old was found dead in a holding cell at the Duchesne County jail. Her father couldn't believe the news.

JARED JENSEN: She got hit by lightning five years ago. Her acrylic nails were boiled. Her arms were swelled up. She smelt like a barbecue, and she lived through that.

EVANS: But Jensen said all it took was a few days behind bars in a county jail for her to die. Jensen and his family live in rural Utah where there aren't many options for people in a mental health crisis. Madison was erratic and threatening suicide. Her mother had just had surgery. Jensen thought jail would be a safe place for his daughter to calm down.

JENSEN: She placed herself in jail to protect her mother from the stress, where she just come out ICU. And the ICU doc says if she has stress, she can go into cardiac arrest immediately. And Madison knew that.

EVANS: And over the course of four days, something went terribly wrong. She had severe diarrhea. She was vomiting. Her cellmate said their repeated calls for help were ignored. Madison was 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 129 pounds when she was arrested. According to the medical examiner, she weighed just 89 pounds when she died. Madison Jensen is one of dozens of inmates to die behind bars in Utah under similar circumstances, suggesting there may be a bigger problem in Utah jails. Republican State Senator Todd Weiler sits on a legislative committee that handles criminal justice issues.

TODD WEILER: We had 11 deaths in jails in 2012, which was the year I took office. We had 24 last year. We've had, I think, 26 through July of 2017. And so when I see that type of increase, it just prompts me to start asking questions.

EVANS: To get answers, however, he'll have to go through Gary DeLand. He's former head of the Utah Department of Corrections. He's also called upon to testify in court on behalf of jails that have been sued. He's had a long history in corrections and even helped rebuild the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. DeLand wrote the state's county jail guidelines in the mid-'90s when the sheriff's union called on his legal expertise.

GARY DELAND: What these people wanted to know is, what do we have to do to keep from getting sued or if we do get sued, at least to win?

EVANS: Jail standards include rules on maintaining facilities, providing food and medical care and how to respond when an inmate is withdrawing from opioids. Utah media, families, state lawmakers and attorneys have submitted open records request for the standards and jail inspection reports. All have been denied. DeLand has made a business selling rights to those standards to sheriffs in other states, including - Oregon, Arizona, Alabama, Michigan and Hawaii. He says their internal management tools, not a public record.

DELAND: The early inspections we did, some of the sheriffs would shred the report after they got it and say, OK, here are the things we got to do, but I don't want that report laying around. Somebody can use it against us.

DAVID FATHI: I have never heard of jail standards being secret. And it is completely inappropriate that they would be secret.

EVANS: David Fathi is director of the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. The project is focused on protecting the civil and constitutional rights of prisoners.

FATHI: Jails are places where public employees paid by taxpayers confine people against their will and sometimes use deadly force. And it's absolutely imperative as a matter of basic transparency and democratic oversight that the policies pursuant to which they do those things are available to the public.

EVANS: Senator Todd Weiler says, as a policymaker, he should see the standards so he can help prevent what happened in Duchesne county.

WEILER: While I keep on being assured by certain interested parties, everything's fine, everything's fine. We have proper checks and balances in place that question, well, then how did Duchesne get so far out of hand before that was discovered and had there not been a self-reporting incident, then would it have ever been discovered?

EVANS: Madison Jensen's father, Jared, has filed a federal lawsuit saying lax health policies and staff training contributed to Madison's death. But without any sense of what the standards are for treating inmates like Madison, it might be hard to hold jail administrators accountable. For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Salt Lake City.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the introduction to this report, the word “prisons” is used. The correct word would be “jails,” which are locally operated and generally hold inmates with sentences of less one year.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 18, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
The introduction to this story incorrectly refers to inmate deaths as occurring in Utah prisons. The facilities are jails.
Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.