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KSL, File

Utah lawmaker pitches early plan to combat jail deaths

By Annie Knox, KSL | Posted - Aug. 21, 2019 at 7:41 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah lawmaker seeking to prevent further deaths in Utah jails says one solution could involve inmates speaking with health care workers over a video feed when they are first booked.

Such conversations, potentially spanning hundreds of miles, could bridge the gap between understaffed rural jails and resources available in larger Utah cities, Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, told members of a legislative panel Wednesday at the Utah State Capitol.

Moss said she believes those who run Utah’s jails want to do a good job. She has spoken with one rural Utah jail superintendent who noted his thin staff of officers do their best, but are not trained mental health professionals, she told the legislative panel. She plans to co-sponsor a bill to bring about the technology later this year, though the details still are being ironed out.

“The whole thing comes down to lack of resources,” Moss said. “This would give them that advantage to have appropriate screening” that could lead to a plan for monitoring addiction and mental health issues.

In Utah and around the country, she noted, families of those who have died in jails in recent years have sued the counties that run them.

“These counties are at great risk. It’s a great liability for them,” she said.

Lawsuits in Utah remain pending against Duchesne County in the deaths of two women in its custody — the 21-year-old inmate Madison Jensen, who was found unresponsive in her cell in 2016, and 25-year-old Tanna Jo Fillmore, who took her own life the same year.

A committee tasked with tracking Utah’s jail deaths reported last year that of 71 inmates who died in county jails 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.

Members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee did not discuss or vote on the proposal Wednesday.

Annie Knox

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