With the responsibility of supervising more than 50 employees and providing safety to all county residents, Utah County Sheriff David Bateman has a lot on his mind.
But when Bateman goes to work each day, one thing always looms over his head - liability. With a jail that is close to or over its limits almost every day, Bateman has a hard time forgetting that it does not take much to end up in court. And he says the jail's inmates don't forget it either."The minute some inmates step in the door they are testing our system, just looking for something to sue us for. To them it's a way of getting back at the system," Bateman said. "They've got me walking a tightrope all the time."
Bateman said a prisoner filing a lawsuit is always a concern, but it becomes more of a concern when the jail becomes overcrowded. Restricted space means less flexibility for jail administrators.
"It has definitely become more of a concern for us the more overcrowded we have become," Bateman said.
The Utah County Jail has a capacity of about 150 inmates. At one time around Christmas the jail had 175 inmates. By moving some office equipment and putting a few mattresses on the floor, jail administrators were able to house inmates in space normally used for other purposes.
Decreased flexibility because of overcrowding became apparent in the county jail last month. Inmates serving time on weekends are now housed in the jail's minimum-security area. Previously all weekend inmates were housed in the medium-security unit. Bateman said the change was necessitated by overcrowding.Limited space also means limited visiting rights for inmates, and inmates don't like their visiting rights taken away. Unhappy inmates increase the jail's liability concern.
"If you get inmates that have limited visiting rights they become stressed and the likelihood of something breaking out increases," he said. "Some need the visiting rights to calm their violent nature."
In some instances courts have dictated how many prisoners a jail can allow. The courts have recently limited the inmate population at jails in Salt Lake and Cache counties. Officials there have had to release prisoners with time remaining on their sentence and some who normally would be arrested have been released.
"When (the courts) assess the problem to be serious and acute, then they'll step in," Bateman said. "There have even been instances where federal marshals have come in and taken over the jail."
Overcrowding is not the only liability concern for jail administrators, inmates are suing for a variety of reasons. Bateman said jail administrators must keep current on court rulings and avoid liability situations. Jail officials are trained to respect the rights of inmates, and if they believe an inmate's complaint is legitimate they will attempt to resolve the problem.
"If we think we have a problem we sit down and try to solve it before it ever gets into court," Bateman said.
An area of major concern for jailers is inmate suicide. Because many inmates are arrested while intoxicated they easily become depressed. Jail officials are trained to recognize an inmate with suicide tendencies. An inmate suicide always makes the county vulnerable to a wrongful-death suit.
"That's something we fear all the time," he said. "We have to be extremely careful in how we assess and classify our prisoners."
Past lawsuits have brought about many changes at the jail. Inmates now have better access to legal materials, candy and drink machines, and medical attention is available to inmates 24 hours a day.
Because most court action has been favorable to the rights of inmates, Bateman said the county would be better to address jail overcrowding now than wait until a court orders it to. Otherwise, the county may end up paying more in lawsuits than it would cost to build a larger and more modern facility.
"When you have more inmates than you can adequately supervise the more risk you assume, and it's just a matter of time before they get you."
Jail conditions that have been ruled unconstitutional:
- Inadequate lighting and heating
- Lack of toilets and sinks in cells
- Fire code violations
- Failure to segregate violent inmates
- Failure to segregate sick inmates
- Inadequate medical treatment
- Inadequate space and facilities for exercise
- Denial of right to worship
- Lack of soundproof rooms for attorney visits
- Strip searches in public view