SALT LAKE CITY — Of the 71 inmates who died in county jails in Utah from 2013 to 2017, more than half took their own lives and nearly half of all deaths occurred within the first seven days behind bars.
The Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice reported those numbers to state lawmakers this week under a new law that requires it to gather statistics on jail and prison deaths.
The report also showed 20 state prison inmates died in 2017, the only year for which the law required reporting. Only two of those deaths were suicides.
"What's striking in the report is the amount of suicides and when they occur. They occur the day of or within the first week of incarceration," Kim Cordova, commission executive director, told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
The report found 38 of the 71 jail deaths were suicides, and 31 of all deaths happened in the first week — six on the first day — of incarceration. Of the remainder, 16 were due to illness, four from alcohol or drug intoxication, one accident and 12 were listed as other/unknown.
Each of the state's 26 county jails — Morgan, Wayne and Paiute do not operate jails — have their own inmate safety policies and procedures, Cordova said. A Utah Substance Abuse Advisory Council working group is expected to put out a list of best practices at the end of November, she said.
"I know that there are great models out there in different counties that have great medical staff and who are responsive to this crisis mode when inmates come into their county jails," Cordova said.
Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, said he knows jails that go to the "nth degree" to prevent inmates from committing suicide. But he said it's hard to stop someone who is determined to take their own life like an inmate who took a "header" off the toilet in his cell.
"What are we going to do? Are we going to take bathrooms out? Are we going to say they have nothing in the room, it's just square place where they have nothing to jump off?" he asked.
Perry said he believes jail commanders are doing "yeoman's work" to prevent deaths and information in the report will help them continue to do that.
Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, said county jails need to evaluate their policies to see what they could do differently to prevent suicides.7 comments on this story
“We should look for policies and procedures and interventions, not necessarily on a statewide basis, but county by county,” said Redd, the contract medical director for the Cache County Jail.
Redd said because more than half of the jail deaths happened shortly after incarceration, he wants to be more aggressive in treating inmates in the first two weeks they're in jail.
Of the 20 state prison deaths in 2017, 15 were due to illness, two each to suicide and drug or alcohol intoxication and one unknown or other, according to the report.