Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Report Released on Deaths in Utah Prisons and Jails

by Ed Lyon 

A new law in Utah requires information about deaths in both the state’s prisons and local jails to be reported annually. The first death in custody report, released last November, revealed that around half of all prisoner deaths are suicides and that most jail deaths occur within the first week of incarceration. 

“What’s striking in the report is the amount of suicides and when they occur,” said Kim Cordova, executive director of the state’s Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice (CCJJ), which compiled the review of prisoner deaths.

Of 71 deaths reported in Utah county jails over a five-year period, 38 were suicides and 31 occurred within the first week after the prisoner was booked into jail. Six of the deaths occurred on the first day in custody.

Deaths in state prisons were less predominated by suicides, and the prisoners had usually been incarcerated far longer than one week. Of the 20 prison deaths reported in 2017, just two were suicides. Two others resulted from drug or alcohol intoxication and 15 from “illness,” while the last was listed as “other/unknown.” 

The majority of the state prisoners had served one to seven years at the time of their deaths, with three having been imprisoned over 15 years.

Since 2000, at least 357 prisoners have died in Utah’s state prisons and local jails combined, according to a trio of reports which do not cover each type of facility for every year. The state had the highest prisoner death rate per capita in the U.S. in 2017, up from fourth place in 2014.

Two of the reports were released in December 2016 by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), recording 141 deaths in Utah prisons in 11 of the 14 years from 2001 to 2014, plus another 122 deaths in the state’s local jails from 2000 to 2012. The third report, released in November 2018 by the CCJJ, cataloged 71 deaths in the state’s jails from 2013 to 2017 based on partial data, plus 20 deaths in state prisons in 2017.

While the total number of jail deaths in Utah covers all years since 2000, the data on state prisoner deaths is less complete. The BJS did not report the number of deaths in state prisons in 2000 or from 2002 to 2004, nor has it yet reported such deaths for any year after 2014. The CCJJ was not required to collect and report the number of deaths in state prisons before 2017, leaving no data from 2015 or 2016.

Further, the data reported to the CCJJ was complete only for 2017 for all 26 counties with jails. In 2013 and 2014, ten counties did not provide reports. Moreover, the 16 deaths reported in 2016 was one-third below the number cited in an investigation by the Salt Lake Tribune.

The CCJJ report is the first required under a new state law that was adopted following news reports on jail deaths in 2016. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.34]. Passed in March 2018, SB 205 requires all county jails and state prisons to report prisoner deaths to the CCJJ by August 1 each year. It also requires an examination of jail protocols related to prisoners suffering from drug withdrawal and overdoses. 

The law aims to provide “a snapshot of inmate safety and health care issues for possible future legislation,” said its sponsor, state Senator Todd Weiler. But in the state’s first report on deaths in custody, prison officials nonetheless resisted, withholding most of the details related to investigations into prisoner deaths while citing medical confidentiality and privacy laws. 

Yet privacy concerns did not deter them from announcing that 11 of the deceased prisoners were “child sex offenders,” or that “three were murderers and one was a kidnapper and arsonist.”

Attributing the high rate of jail suicides in large part to withdrawal from drugs, state Rep. Ed Redd hoped that information would result in the implementation of new policies.

“Let’s evaluate what we can do differently,” Redd said. “They maybe want to be more aggressive in helping people, protecting them in the first couple weeks in jail.”

But CCJJ director Kim Cordova stressed that the death in custody reports do not include data for drug withdrawal fatalities since that is not a category used in federal reports, which the state’s system copied. Regardless, she called the CCJJ’s report “a really good starting point for the dialogue” that legislators need to have.

The new law also requires counties to report allowed medications and treatment plans for prisoners addicted to opiates upon intake. Just three county jails – in Salt Lake, Wasatch and Weber – allow the commonly-used detox drugs methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Nine counties permit only non-narcotic treatment, such as pain and anxiety medication, vitamins, prenatal supplements or even “electrolyte replacement” using Gatorade.

Ten counties reported no withdrawal treatments for prisoners. In Uintah County, “habit-forming drugs for the purpose of satisfying the cravings of addiction” are specifically prohibited because they are not considered a “bona fide medical treatment.”

A lack of transparency concerning in-custody deaths is not unusual, according to Karen Russo with the Wrongful Death and Injury Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, who called investigations into prison and jail deaths “always substandard.” She had criticized SB 205’s lack of enforcement provisions, calling it “a worthless piece of paper.”

But there was no doubt about the cause of 24-year-old Jeffrey Ray Vigil’s March 15, 2016 death at the Utah State Prison. Transferred to a unit where rival gang members were held, he was stabbed repeatedly by Ramon Luis Rivera, who also stomped Vigil more than 70 times, prison video showed. When Vigil tried to run, another rival gang member, Albert Colin Fernandez, blocked his exit and punched and kicked him. Both Rivera and Fernandez are being prosecuted for Vigil’s murder. In June 2018, state officials agreed to pay $450,000 to resolve a wrongful death suit filed by his widow. See: Vigil v. Crowther, U.S.D.C. (D. Utah), Case No. 1:16-cv-00132-BSJ.

The death of another state prisoner, William Edward Gallegos, was first attributed to a crushed trachea. But the 64-year-old, who had several serious health issues and was confined to a wheelchair, actually died due to a methamphetamine overdose. His death was one of two attributed to drug overdoses in 2017.

More recently, Utah death row prisoner Floyd Maestas, 63, awaiting execution for the murder of an elderly woman during a 2004 robbery in Salt Lake City, died of natural causes on December 2, 2018. 



As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login