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A recent legislative audit skewered the Utah Department of Corrections for inadequately monitoring state inmates housed in county jails. This lack of supervision places the public at risk and has contributed to a number of inmate escapes, the audit said.

Responding to lawmakers, Tom Patterson, executive director of the Department of Corrections, said the department owes it to the state to be more accountable with its jail contracts. This is critical because about one-fifth of Utah prison inmates are housed in county jails due to lack of space in state prisons.

In recent years, a number of high-profile escapes have rocked public confidence in the idea of housing state inmates in county jails. Inmates have twice escaped from the Daggett County Jail, including two convicted killers in September 2007. The pair were on the run six days before being caught in Wyoming. In 2004, three inmates escaped from the jail, which resulted in 11 inmates obtaining and using methamphetamine.

In October 2007, a state inmate convicted of rape and kidnapping escaped from a jail in Beaver County. He was caught five years later. An inmate convicted of manslaughter escaped from the Garfield County Jail.

The Department of Corrections has limited options at its disposal. As the prison population has increased, it has had to place inmates in county jails because of its own limited bed space. Attempts to place inmates in private prisons out of state have been unsuccessful. More beds are being constructed at the prison in Gunnison, but trends suggest demand will continued to outstrip supply.

At the same time, many counties have relied on revenue they receive from housing state inmates to retire bonds for jail construction. They want to continue to receive inmates.

That being the case, both the counties that provide these services and the state, which contracts with county jails for corrections beds, need to improve their performances. County jails must provide highly trained corrections officers and have adequate levels of staffing to provide appropriate supervision of state inmates. County jails no longer house first-degree felons, inmates who have attempted to escape in the past five years and those convicted of a loss-of-life crime. This policy was implemented after the 2007 escapes from the Daggett County Jail.

Given that some 20 percent of state inmates are held in county jails and the need for these beds will continue for the foreseeable future, the Department of Corrections must constantly monitor the performance of county jail providers to ensure they are meeting their obligations and public safety is served.