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KSL TV, File

S.L. sheriff: Operation Rio Grande has put squeeze on already strained county jail

By Katie McKellar, KSL  |  Posted Oct 10th, 2017 @ 6:39pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite spending millions in state and county funds to open 300 contracted beds, the Salt Lake County Jail was full again in a matter of days after Operation Rio Grande began Aug. 14.

As a result, many of those arrested are simply booked and released back onto the streets, sometimes just hours after arrest. Of the 1,579 booked as part of Operation Rio Grande, 1,305 had been released due to overcrowding, bail or court as of Tuesday.

Book and releases — some involving repeat offenders — aren't new to the county jail, which is why former Sheriff Jim Winder implemented booking restrictions to reduce the workload on jail staff while limiting cells for those accused of felony offenses or certain violent misdemeanors.

Since the jail began contracting with surrounding counties to expand capacity and the launch of Operation Rio Grande, those booking restrictions have been lifted to the relief of Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, who has said the restrictions helped fuel lawlessness in the Rio Grande area because offenders knew officers wouldn't arrest them for open-air drug use.

But Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera told KSL Tuesday she may have to re-implement those restrictions if her jail's capacity doesn't change.

"There’s really not a lot more we can do without jail space,” she said.

More beds and more staff

The short-term solution, she hopes, is a full opening of the partially shuttered Oxbow Jail — which is expected to cost about $9 million for 300 additional beds.

She said Oxbow "will help," but "down the road" the county will also have to consider adding additional pods to the metro jail, which could cost at minimum $30 million.

The new sheriff said she plans on submitting an official proposal to the Salt Lake County Council next month to renovate and open Oxbow as soon as possible — but until then — with Operation Rio Grande slated to continue until the troubled downtown homeless shelter shuts its doors in July 2019 — the book-and-release cycle will continue.

But that's only one of the challenges facing her strained jail, Rivera told the County Council on Tuesday.

Her staff is also buckling under mandatory overtime resulting in "burnout and turnover," Rivera said. Her jail is also on "lockdown" on a nearly "daily basis" due to low staffing and the need to transport inmates to the hospital.

A "big impact" of Operation Rio Grande has been the vast number of inmates going through opioid withdrawal, Rivera's deputy, Pam Lofgreen, told the council.

For example, jails nursing staff usually cares for about 300 inmates going through addiction withdrawal. During Operation Rio Grande, "those numbers spiked to 700," Lofgreen said.

On top of that, it's also been difficult to recruit and retain experienced deputies, nurses, mental health therapists and licensed psychiatrists due to uncompetitive wages, Rivera said.

The issues facing the jail are not new. Former Sheriff Winder resigned earlier this year to become Moab's new police chief after years of fighting to manage the increasingly crowded jail with increasingly limited resources.

Rivera, however, said she's "hopeful" the county will prioritize the opening of Oxbow.

"The council has been very supportive and they do understand the challenges we're going through right now," she said.

Jail capacity a 'top priority'

County Councilman Steve DeBry said the mandatory overtime on jail staff has troubled him for a long time. If things don't change for the better, "we're going to be in crisis," he said.

"We're going to have to put our heads together," he said.

In an interview after the council meeting, DeBry said it's a "top priority to try" to increase jail capacity, but "the operative word is try."

The councilman said he will need to see Rivera's proposal first, but he wants to figure out a solution. He also said the county may have more opportunity to ask for state assistance during the upcoming legislative session because of the state involvement on Operation Rio Grande.

Of Operation Rio Grande's $67 million projected budget over the next two years, about $14.5 million is expected to be used for jail beds.

But is there enough money without a tax increase, even with state help?

"That's the big question," Debry said. "Right now, to be honest, I do not know ... We're going to do everything in our power to make sure there is not a tax increase and still fund the critical needs for public safety."

Last year, after Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams proposed a lean budget with no tax increase, Winder warned the county will likely need a tax increase in 2017 to meet the jail's needs.

"It's got to come next year," he said at the time. "There's no question."

Katie McKellar, KSL
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