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$122,000 Payout as Utah Settles Suits Claiming Daggett County Jail Torture

On November 15, 2019, the Utah Department of Corrections (DOC) settled lawsuits with four former prisoners who were tortured at the hands of Daggett County Jail guards, agreeing to pay out a total of $122,000. The abuse, which led to the closure of the jail, occurred between May 2015 and February 2017 and further led to criminal charges against the sheriff and four of his underlings in what the Utah Attorney General called “unbelievably inhumane conduct.”

A key player in the abuses was former guard Joshua Cox, who the lawsuits said required prisoners to submit to being shocked and bitten by attack dogs in order to keep their jobs working outside the prison fences. Sometimes Cox abused them if they simply wanted to return to their cells, or even no reason at all. Cox would taunt the prisoners, calling them “bitches” and “pussies,” wrestle with them and choke them out.

Cox was convicted of aggravated assault and spent just four months in county jail. He also lost his peace officer’s certification for life. Jorgensen, the former sheriff who condoned this abuse, was charged in 2017 with failing to keep the prisoners safe.

While prisoners did complain, they were ignored. This is because they were state prisoners housed in county jail in an agreement with the DOC under a program called Inmate Placement Program (IPP), which farms out 20 percent of its prisoners to 21 remote county jails across the state, in what is described as an effort to provide jobs to those areas.

Such an arrangement made the grievance process useless, because the local jails handled the complaints, not DOC. This meant that any complaints against Cox were handled by the person who approved of his behavior: former Sheriff Jorgensen, who was said to fly by the rule that, “If it wasn’t on camera, it didn’t happen.”

The abuse was finally exposed when a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volunteer made the church aware, which in turn informed the DOC. But the abuse went on for two years before anyone let the public know.

Court papers said Cox’s intent was to “humiliate and degrade” the prisoners. When someone did complain, Cox reportedly said, “You can’t do shit, I’m a cop .... This badge says I can do anything I want to anyone here.”

And as far as Jorgensen’s no-camera, no-incident rule, Cox simply had the control room shut off the cameras, documents said.

While Cox was the perpetrator of much of the torture, the other guards named in the lawsuits stood by and never stopped the abuse. In fact, the lawsuits say the other guards encouraged it and “enjoyed” it.

Cox’s abuse of the prisoners with Jorgensen’s seal of approval led to the closure of Daggett County Jail, which severely hurt the county’s economic well-being. The county derived 30 percent of its revenue from the DOC funds under the IPP. Daggett County Jail was supposedly the region’s biggest employer.

The state chose to settle the lawsuits instead of going to trial, but it did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement. “While the state does not believe that the Department of Corrections or its employees violated these plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” and assistant attorney general said, “the State of Utah opted to settle these cases in order to conclude the litigation and eliminate further risk to taxpayers.”

“These lawsuits have sent a very strong message that everyone’s rights need to be respected,” attorney John Mejia, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented three of the prisoners.

The ACLU is still looking into a broader problem with the IPP, which they say puts prisoners too far out of reach of the DOC’s care and opens them up to abuse, like what happened in Daggett County.

More prisoners said they felt “scared all the time” while at Daggett County Jail. The four prisoners in these lawsuits have since been released and were paid between $30,000 and $32,000 each in the settlement agreement. More lawsuits are pending. See: Asay v. Daggett County, USDC (D. Utah), Case No. 2:18-cv-00422; Porter and Drollette v. Daggett County, Case No. 2:18-cv-00389; Olsen v. Daggett County, Case No. 2:19-cv-00188. 

 

Additional source: sltrib.com

Related legal cases

Asay v. Daggett County

Porter and Drollette v. Daggett County

Olsen v. Daggett County