Utah’s secret jail standards do nothing to protect prisoners

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Marion Herrera died in the Weber County Jail. She died of narcotics withdrawal and dehydration, according to her autopsy.

Yet the sheriff’s office insists it bears no responsibility. In fact, a private attorney hired by the county blames Herrera for her own death.

Herrera, the attorney argues, failed to exhaust the jail’s grievance process.

While she was withdrawing from heroin and dying of dehydration.

Now it is clear. Now it is undeniable.

If the Weber County Jail met the Utah Sheriffs’ Association standards for prisoner safety and medical care as Marion Herrera painfully died over three days in its medical unit, then those standards must be abandoned.

Because they’re meaningless. They do nothing to protect the prisoners in Utah jails.

They only protect sheriffs from public accountability.

Herrera, 40, was a heroin addict. She told a jail nurse she’d gotten high every day for three years.

But she wasn’t in jail on charges related to her drug habit. Police arrested her May 18, 2016, for allegedly cashing a forged check for $763.

Jailers moved Herrera to a medical cell for detox and liquids. Investigators said staff left cups of liquid for her in the handcuff port of her cell the night before she died.

When jailers checked on her shortly after 3 a.m. May 22, they found untouched cups of water, gelatin and broth near her body. She’d been dead long enough that rigor mortis had started.

Heroin withdrawal is painful and ugly. You vomit. You get diarrhea. You dehydrate. Your blood pressure craters. Your muscles convulse.

And during this, Herrera was supposed to file a series of grievances with the jail.

Utah does not require its jails to meet minimum safety and health requirements. Instead, it allows jails to voluntarily adopt standards developed by Gary DeLand, a consultant for the Utah Sheriffs’ Association.

But since the standards belong to DeLand, they’re considered proprietary. They’re secret. Utahns cannot judge their adequacy, not can they assess how they’re being applied.

All we know is this — Sheriff Terry Thompson says his jailers did nothing wrong as Herrera died. That means DeLand’s jail standards allow sheriffs to withhold aggressive medical treatment from patients dying of drug withdrawal and dehydration.

What kind of state gives its jails that kind of autonomy? What kind of state allows its jails to decide who lives and who dies?

What kind of state fails to hold its sheriffs accountable for the health and safety of its prisoners?

The answer: Utah.

Utah, which led the nation in per capita jail deaths in 2014.

Utah, where 24 prisoners died in custody in 2016 — the most in at least 17 years.

County jails are among the most expensive assets taxpayers fund. They run on our money. They house prisoners on our behalf. And when they fail, they become the subject of costly lawsuits that potentially cost us millions.

It is unconscionable that they’re allowed to operate in secret.

If Utah’s jail standards failed to protect Marion Herrera, they cannot protect anyone. Utah needs to replace them immediately with basic standard for the humane treatment of prisoners — public standards, for which sheriffs will be held accountable.

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