The Utah Department of Corrections is being blamed for a series of jail escapes in a newly released legislative audit.
"The Utah Department of Corrections has not been adequately overseeing the contracts of inmates housed in county jails," the audit said. "Inadequate contract oversight has contributed to some jail escapes and other operational problems."
The audit, ordered by the Utah State Legislature in the aftermath of a series of high-profile jail escapes, said corrections officials should revisit their contracts with county jails and demand security upgrades. Changes are already being made, corrections officials insist.
"We have been negligent over a period of
time," Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Patterson told the Deseret News after a legislative hearing on Wednesday. "This decay has been occurring over several years and is one that has to be rectified."
Because of a bed-space shortage in the prisons at Point of the Mountain and Gunnison, corrections contracts with 21 counties in Utah to house inmates. It's a deal that has been beneficial to both sides, with some counties building bigger jails to bank on state inmates. The Sanpete and Kane County jails are currently working on expanding for state beds.
But over the years, the audit said, corrections brass became lax in their oversight of contracted jails.
"Past department directors have not ensured that the jail contracting program grew in sophistication as the number of inmates in the program also grew," the audit said, accusing corrections of not ensuring that security problems at the jail were corrected.
That became painfully apparent in September 2007, when two convicted killers escaped from the Daggett County Jail. Juan Diaz-Arevalo and Danny Gallegos were on the run for a week before being captured again. The pair pleaded guilty to escape charges in Manila's 8th District Court and were sentenced to prison time. They are also facing federal charges and will go on trial Oct. 27.
For years, Daggett County's jail had security lapses and other problems noted in inspections, but little effort was made to fix the problems. In 2004, three county inmates scaled a perimeter security fence in a minimum security area known as "the Green House," a former sheriff's residence that was used to house about 20 inmates. It was sporadically staffed.
A corrections inspection said no inmates should be housed in the Green House. A 2006 inspection found inmates still living there. In 2007, Gallegos and Diaz-Arevalo escaped by walking through an unlocked and unmonitored door that led to the Green House. They climbed a fence and escaped.
The audit re-evaluated the escape and found that at times, inmates controlled the door leading from the jail to the Green House and had the ability to prop it open. The fence didn't have sufficient razor wire or sensors.
"Also, not all security cameras were working, so the cameras did not detect which direction the inmates fled," the audit said.
Jail staff was inexperienced and lax. A faulty body count the night of the escape gave the inmates a 5 1/2-hour head start. Gallegos and Diaz-Arevalo were on the run for six days before being captured after tying up a man, stealing his car and leading Wyoming authorities on a chase that ended in a shooting.
The Daggett County Jail escape was the most egregious, but it wasn't the only blunder the audit laid at the hands of corrections officials. A 2004 escape from the Duchesne County Jail, a sex scandal in 2006 at Washington County's Purgatory Jail and safety concerns at other county-run facilities also caused enough concern that auditors said corrections should have removed state inmates until they were fixed.
Recommending changes, the audit said jail contract requirements need to be reviewed with basic performance standards and expectations and monitored. Actually implementing the standards would also prevent any future escapes, as well as enforcement of jail contracts.
"For example, if Daggett County Jail had been in compliance with the Sheriffs' Association standards, the escapes may have been avoided," the audit said, noting that a March 2007 review found the jail clean and efficient but "could be more secure."
A man convicted of manslaughter escaped from the Garfield County Jail in Panguitch in August 2007. An October review of the jail found the same problems, the audit said, but corrections still had not pursued any corrective action against the jail.
The Utah Department of Corrections was overhauled after a damning 2006 audit found problems within the department that prompted the governor to oust then-corrections chief Scott Carver and replace him with Patterson.
Patterson agreed with all of the recommendations and said they were already being implemented. Corrections has only recently placed 70 inmates back in the Daggett County Jail, Patterson said. All first-degree felons have been removed from county jails, despite protests from some county sheriffs. House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, noted that the jails are a local government function.
"Do we need to change any statutes or anything to give the department authority to tell them how to operate the jail?" he asked.
Patterson was willing to take the blame for the county facilities."I don't think it's misdirected," he told the Deseret News. "When we became aware that those vulnerabilities were not being corrected, we should have been more aggressive."