Utah’s jails continue to operate in secrecy – and prisoners continue to die

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Gregory Leigh Hayes didn’t even make it to his cell.

Hayes collapsed and died Dec. 14 in the Davis County Jail’s intake area, where prisoners undergo screening for mental health issues and substance abuse.

Sheriff Todd Richardson believed he’d stopped in-custody deaths after a grievous 2016. But, as it turns out, he didn’t.

Which only underscores the need for jail reform in Utah.

Hayes, 33, spent much the last year of his life in court or the Davis County Jail, mostly on misdemeanor charges.

Police arrested him in May on a felony DUI charge, which led him to drug court. Hayes hoped that by undergoing substance abuse treatment, he could start over with a clean record.

He needed help. Centerville police found him propped against the side of a restaurant in October, incoherent, carrying two bottles of prescription medicine and a bag of methamphetamine.

A day before his death, with Hayes schedule to appear in drug court Dec. 29, a judge ordered his release from jail. He was free less than a day.

Police arrested Hayes shortly before 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13. Why he was released and taken back into custody so quickly isn’t clear, but jailers booked him at 10:48 p.m.

Hayes died Dec. 14. Police informed his mother about his death, but Susan Johnson says she hasn’t been able to learn any details.

That’s the problem. No one can. Ever. Because even when prisoners die in their custody, Utah jails operate in secrecy.

You’ll notice Hayes died Dec. 14, but the story about his death didn’t break for nearly a month. That’s because Utah law does not require jails to publicly report in-custody deaths. Mark Shenefelt, a reporter for the Standard-Examiner, learned about Hayes’ death from Johnson, the prisoner’s mother.

Utahns cannot hold sheriffs accountable for in-custody deaths if they don’t know prisoners are dying.
And they are dying. Utah leads the nation in per-capita jail deaths, recording 24 in 2016 — a 17-year high.

The Utah Sheriffs’ Association spent 2017 defending its jail standards, which were developed privately by a consultant, Gary DeLand, and which he refuses to release. Participation is voluntary.

They failed in 2016, nowhere more tragically than Davis County, where six prisoners died that year — a quarter of the state’s total.

Death after death, Richardson stood pat. Even after Heather Ashton Miller died in December 2016 of a blow so powerful it nearly split her spleen, and jailers scrubbed the scene of evidence before investigators arrived, Richardson insisted nothing needed to change.

Now he says that he initiated a study of jail policies after a series of deaths in the summer of 2016, which led to changes in suicide prevention measures, mental health assessments and substance abuse screenings.

“When all of this started happening, we looked at what was going on. And with our changes, this year, it stopped,” Richardson said in November.

Except it didn’t. Hayes died in December. His death is being investigated by the Farmington Police Department.

State laws do not compel DeLand, sheriffs or police chiefs to release jail standards, inspection results or policies. Utahns cannot assess their adequacy, nor can we see if, when or how they’ve been applied. We can only see the death toll when they fail — and then only by relying on grieving relatives to step forward or by filing a barrage of open records requests.

No wonder Miller’s mother, Cynthia Farnham-Stella, filed a civil rights suit against Davis County. She has no other recourse. Nor does the family of Kara Noakes, 46, who died in her Davis jail cell June 23, 2016, after staff confiscated her prescription blood pressure pills, antidepressants and painkillers. An attorney representing Noakes’ family has filed notice of a $2 million wrongful death suit against the county.

Utah built a system that protects sheriffs from accountability for the safety of their prisoners. That cannot continue.

Our sheriffs must immediately report in-custody deaths and adopt jail standards open to the public. Because even though it’s too late for Gregory Hayes, lives are at stake.

Possibly yours.

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