VERNAL — Uintah County Sheriff Jeff Merrell has requested an independent investigation into claims that two of his corrections deputies forced inmates to endure electrical shocks if they wanted to join an inmate work crew.
"I've already contacted an outside agency (to investigate)," Merrell told the Deseret News. "If there were practices going on that we did not know about, we want those practices ceased."
"Not to say that there were any of these practices taking place, because I don't know," he added. "I just heard about this this morning."
The sheriff's comments came Friday, one day after attorneys for Qaiyim A. Hill and Richard Anthony Uribe filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The suit names the state of Utah, the Utah Department of Corrections, two of Merrell's deputies and a number of "John Does" as defendants.
In their complaint, Hill and Uribe claim two deputies told them they had to "ride the lightning" as an initiation before they could go out as part of a six-man crew on work details around the county.
"Apparently 'riding the lightning' meant that each inmate would have to grab a metal hook in each hand, which were fashioned to look like horns, and these horns in turn were attached to what appeared to be a car battery," the lawsuit states.
The men received "a substantial shock, which would convulse their bodies," the lawsuit states, adding that this was done "to amuse the officers."
The incident cited in the complaint allegedly happened in September 2010. But Uribe claims that he witnessed inmates being forced to endure similar shocks "many times" during his incarceration at the jail between July 2010 and April 2011.
In court papers, Hill described the experience as "extremely painful and humiliating." He also said he suffered two seizures afterward, which he attributed to the electrical shocks he allegedly received.
At the time of the alleged incident, Hill and Uribe were state inmates serving prison sentences at the Uintah County Jail through a contract with the Department of Corrections, according to their complaint.
Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke declined to comment on the lawsuit's allegations, citing the agency's policy of not discussing pending litigation.
Merrell was able to retrieve Hill and Uribe's booking files Friday afternoon and said they contained "no complaints, just basic information."
"As I check these files, I find none of what they are reporting in federal court," the sheriff said.
"If there's another file somewhere, I haven't found it," he said, noting that the jail's records clerk was not in the office Friday.
Merrell confirmed that one of the deputies named in the lawsuit still works in the jail, though he is not currently assigned to supervise the inmate work crew. The other individual named in the lawsuit no longer works for the sheriff's office, having decided to pursue another job opportunity, the sheriff said.
"That was his own choice," Merrell said.
Court records show Hill has convictions for robbery, failure to stop at the command of police, theft by receiving stolen property, and attempted distribution of a controlled substance. Uribe has been convicted of aggravated assault, attempted distribution of a controlled substance, and possession of a controlled substance, according to court records.
Neither man is still incarcerated.