Few would argue there isn't a need for a wake-up call on the serious issue of housing and caring for society's most troubled and dangerous citizens; criminals whose actions have caused them to be locked up. However, the uninformed editorial comments,
inflammatory and inaccurate reporting, along with the finger-pointing of corrections officials concerning recent escapes from custody from county jails all need to be put into perspective.
The contractual type of arrangement between state corrections and county jails began several years prior to 1988 as has been stated in the recent news reports. Although it later evolved into an overcrowding relief valve for the state, its original purpose was to help the prison with special housing problems such as inmate segregation and protection issues. The early years of the state's need to farm out prisoners coincided with a period of time when many counties needed to construct new or renovate existing jails, resulting in extra bed space in county jails. Thus came about the increased use by the state.
Contrary to the views of current corrections officials, there was a partnership and close working relationship formed between the state and counties in the 1980s, and it has served all the state's citizens more than 20 years. Housing criminals at any facility is a serious, dangerous and sometimes deadly business and should be managed as such. The sheriffs of Utah sponsored legislation last year to require all sheriffs who operate jails to be certified in jail management (some already are). That piece of legislation, I might add, never saw the light of day once it was filed. Perhaps it ought to be rewritten and filed again to also include the director and deputy director of state corrections.
The housing location of some state inmates may need to be evaluated, but the wholesale movement of inmates out of county jails based just on the crimes for which they are incarcerated makes no sense at all. Most jails are maximum security facilities by design and by the very nature of their purpose. I would like to remind everyone, most particularly those who have had so much negative to say on this issue, that there is not a single person in any prison facility in this state who wasn't first housed in a county jail.
Many are kept there for lengthy periods of time while the slow wheels of justice grind away. This means the baddest of the bad, those on 24-hour lockdown, were at one time safely housed in a county jail first. That's just the way the criminal justice system in Utah works.
Is there a need for a tuneup in the system? I think we all agree on that. However, to point the finger at and summarily attempt to punish all county jails is wrong. Most jails in Utah boast no escapes, ever. Something the Department of Corrections certainly can't do.
Sometimes I admit, those good results might be more luck than good management but, either way, I am more inclined to argue for good management throughout our correctional system, county and state. The program of housing state inmates in county jails has a long and stellar history of safety while saving the citizens of this state millions upon millions of dollars. Those counties that have experienced the recent escapes no doubt need to step up and correct the identified problems. All the rest need to look deep inside at their own operation on an ongoing basis. Mostly, it boils down to personnel. If good operational policies exist at a correctional facility, then the people working there follow it in detail.So, come on, news media and state officials, let's quit the knee-jerk comments, irrational reactions and finger-pointing and get on with addressing just the problems that need to be addressed.
Ed Phillips is a former Millard County sheriff and the soon-to-be retired deputy commissioner of Public Safety.