Utah Jails, Prisons To Get New Safety Standards After Deaths And Controversy

The state of Utah will write new standards for safety and operations at prisons and county jails — and those standards will now be made available to the public. The announcement came Friday after media and civil rights groups challenged their confidentiality.

In the last year, media outlets, including member station KUER in Salt Lake City, civil rights groups and families of inmates sought information about why so many county jail inmates were dying in Utah. Through open records requests, KUER found that the state leads the nation in per capita in-custody deaths. There were 24 of these deaths in 2016, including 21-year-old Madison Jensen. She died from cardiac arrhythmia due to dehydration and opiate withdrawal in the Duchesne County Jail, which is about two hours outside of Salt Lake City. Jensen lost at least 17 pounds in four days, according to the medical examiner.

Until now, the standards that guide how facilities are maintained and how inmates are cared for have been kept private. Gary DeLand, a corrections consultant who is also the former head of corrections in Utah, says he has a copyright on the rules. DeLand said he would not release them because they contained trade secrets, and their release could risk safety and security at Utah jails.

Now, Utah's current prison boss, Rollin Cook, says the state will collaborate with sheriffs to write new standards and he'll make them available for viewing by all interested parties.

"Transparency is essential to building trust in our corrections system," said Cook, who is the executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections. "By operating under standards that address the needs of Utah's correctional system, we can be accountable to our citizens while providing safe and humane environments for the people who work in and who are incarcerated in our state."

Cook is convening a commission of sheriffs, jail commanders, correctional officers and adult probation and parole staff to write the standards this year. He says DeLand will not be involved in that process.

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