Utah Sheriffs’ Association Response to News Media Discussion of Jail Suicides

By Expert : Gary DeLand

Editor’s Note:  The following letter was written in response to recent negative accusations from the news media in and ACLU in Utah.

by Gary W. DeLand,  Jail Operations Director, Utah Sheriffs’ Association

The ACLU and the several media outlets have developed a sudden interest in a problem which is hardly new and which has been grappled with for decades not only by jail officials, but also by professionals in many different disciplines (e.g., prison officials, criminal justice planners, the National Institute of Corrections, mental health experts, medical providers, school officials, standards and policy writers, youth corrections).  Unfortunately, the approach currently being taken by the news media and ACLU is similar to picking a single tree in the forest and focusing on it as if it were the only tree that mattered.  Or, viewing the suicide problem in a vacuum.

Do suicides occur in jails? Yes, they do.  Unfortunately, regardless of how well administered a jail is and no matter how well supervised inmates may be, there can be no absolute guarantee that every suicide can be prevented.  The impossibility of anticipating and preventing any inmate actions was stated particularly well in Farmer v. Brennan the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark duty-to-protect case.  The court noted that corrections facilities:

[H]ouse society’s most antisocial and violent people in close proximity with one another. Regrettably, ‘[s]ome level of brutality and sexual aggression among [prisoners] is inevitable no matter what the guards do . . . unless all prisoners are locked in their cells 24 hours a day and sedated.’[1]

While Farmer dealt with inmate violence, that statement also applies to the difficulty of anticipating and preventing acts of self harm as well.  But, suicide is even more difficult to prevent than inmate-on-inmate assault.  Inmates who are known to be at odds with each other can be separated; however, a suicidal inmate cannot be separated from himself.

I have worked to combat the inmate suicide problem throughout the years during which I have served as a jail commander, state corrections director, standards and inspections provider, expert witness in jail suicide litigation, writer of jail and prison standards for Utah and several other states, writer of jail and prison policies and procedures, and national-level trainer on inmate suicide issues.  A myriad of other professionals – including members of the Utah Sheriffs’ Association –  have been involved in various ways dealing with inmate suicide issues; however, the suicide problem – in and out of jails – continues to vex those who work diligently to combat the problem.

It is certainly appropriate for the news media, prisoner rights advocates, and others to examine this important issue and to make the public aware of the true nature of the problem. My concern with the current attention being given to the jails’ efforts to deal with the suicide problem is the complete lack of context.  Reading the articles it would appear that suicides are almost unique to Utah jails; however, suicide is a broad-based, national, and historic problem.  The laser-like tunnel vision targeting jail suicides is misplaced.

Suicide as a National Issue

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) more than 120 suicides occur each day in the U.S., a rate of 13.26 suicides per 100,000 population and suicides are the 10th leading cause of death nationally. Even more alarming is the fact that the suicide rate has steadily increased for at least the last two decades.  Suicide is more than a Utah jail issue.

Suicide as a Utah Issue

According to the AFSP, Utah is the 5th leading state in the U.S. with a suicide rate of 22.4 per 100,000 population.  Suicide is the 7thleading cause of death in the state.  And, even more alarming, Utah’s already high suicide rate is increasing at a higher rate than the national average. A suicide occurs in Utah every 14 hours. It should come as no surprise that some of those persons who commit or attempt to commit suicide are in jail when they decide to act on their suicide ideation. Suicide is more than a Utah jail issue.

Suicide as a School Issue

The suicide rate for school age children (ages 10-17) in Utah is also very high compared to the national average and is increasing.  Of course, this is not the age group that jail officials incarcerate, so suicide is more than a Utah jail issue.

Suicide as a Prison Issue

The media coverage has focused on the suicides which have occurred in Utah jails; however, the Utah State Department of Corrections is faced with the same difficulty as the jails.  As with jail officials, Utah State Prison officials are aggressively seeking to manage this serious and growing problem.  It has been reported that between 2012 and 2013 the Utah State Prison’s suicides increased by 53 percent to a rate of 44 suicides per 100,000 inmates.

Adding Utah high suicide rate to the reality that persons incarcerated in prison must face years of confinement in an environment devoid of freedom.  Incarceration is frustrating, stressful, and unpleasant – the downside to being convicted and sentenced for robbery, burglary, rape, sexual assault on a child, homicide, and other such felonies. In perhaps oversimplified terms, suicide occurs when mental or emotional pressure and stress exceeds a person’s immediate ability to overcome the stress.  Incarceration, though an essential part of the criminal justice system, is not likely to improve the outlook of an inmate who is currently experiencing suicide ideation.  Suicide is more than a Utah jail issue.

Suicide as a Jail Issue

Utah jails exist in a state which has an extraordinarily high suicide rate.  Suicides occur in homes, mental hospitals, schools, vehicles, work places, and a variety of other venues.  Why then is it such surprise that some suicides actually occur in Utah jails?  The Utah Sheriffs’ have for several years taken a proactive role in trying to reduce the incidence of suicide in Utah jails.

  • Utah Legal-Based Jail Standards – Many states have no jail standards and many of those that do have standards created to serve only as minimal guidelines which allow officials to easily achieve compliance, without fully addressing the constitutional and statutory requirements for jail operations.  For more than two decades, the Utah Sheriffs’ Association has provided each member sheriff access to over 600 individual standards covering all aspects of jail operations which have been written based on extensive research of the legal requirements for incarcerating inmates.  Few topics have received as much attention in the Utah Jail Standards as has inmate suicide.  In fact, 34 of those standards deal with various aspects of suicide (e.g., screening, classification, medical review, housing, property limits, and other suicide prevention and management issues).
  • Jail Commander Certification Academy (JCCA) Training – The Utah Sheriffs’ Association also provides the Jail Commander Certification Academy – a 120-hour administrative/supervisory certification course – for jail commanders.  The course has become so popular that it is now offered to middle management and supervisory level jail officials.  Instructors are highly regarded national and Utah content experts.  Duty to protect, suicide prevention, and other suicide-related topics are included in the certification training.  The training provides a mix of lecture, interactive, and skills-based training .  The training program is now augmented with a unique online training system which is also available to jails nationally.  The National Sheriffs’ Association has given awards recognizing the leadership role of the individuals who have developed the Utah training system.  Most of Utah’s JCCA training is now a part of the training offered by the National Institute for Jail Operations.
  • Utah Sheriffs’ Association’s Annual Corrections and Law Enforcement Training Conference – The Utah Sheriffs’ Association puts on an annual training program which draws approximately 800 attendees from Utah and states as far away as Louisiana and Alabama.  At each conference approximately two dozen experts provide instruction – about two thirds of whom are brought in from across the U.S.   Various instructors have taught on suicide-related topics (e.g., Dr. Steve Sampson, Georgia; Dr. Mike Haley, Louisiana; Capt. Sean Stewart, Arizona; Carrie Sandbaken-Hill, Esq., Minnesota; Blake Hamilton, Esq., Utah.
  • Utah Sheriffs’ Association Jail Inspections – The county jails in Utah are inspected by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association.  Inspections evaluate the jail’s written policies and procedures to determine if the policies comply with the Utah Jail Standards.  The jail inspectors also require jail officials to provide “proofs” – documentation – that the jail actually complies with their standards-based policies and procedures.  About 20 of the state’s jails receive additional inspections by the Utah State Department of Corrections to become eligible to house state prisoners.  Jails which house prisoners for the U.S. Marshals Service are also inspected by U.S. Marshals and those jails which house prisoners for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are also audited to ensure compliance with ICE detention standards.  Certainly, no inspection system is perfect, but Utah jails are aggressively inspected against clearly defined standards.


ACLU Calls for Outside Inspections

Now the ACLU wants yet another level of jail inspections? What would these outside inspectors use for benchmarks for their inspections?  Utah already has heavily researched and validated standards to ensure that as nearly as possible they provide each jail with standards based on the constitutional and statutory requirement that govern jail operations.  Perhaps, the ACLU would prefer the American Correctional Association (ACA) standards which the U.S. Supreme Court at least twice has ruled do not create constitutional minima and that judges err if they rely on them.  The quality and value of the ACA standards have also been criticized by academic researchers (e.g., John J. DiIulio, Governing Prisons), lower federal courts, many corrections professionals, and other reviewers.

The ACLU wants yet another level of inspections?  Does one more entity inspecting any Utah jail actually prevent an inmate experiencing suicide ideation from acting on that ideation?  Of course not.  If there is a belief that somehow the additional inspection layer would endow each and every jail officer with a level of clairvoyance that would prevent each and every inmate from attempting suicide, that belief is sadly mistaken.  Jail officers do not have the time for extensive interaction with each individual prisoner and even if they did, that would not mean that they could read the prisoner’s mind; thus, be cognizant of any suicide ideation the inmate might be hiding.

Even family members who knew the inmate on a close and personal level often do not have that ability.  For example in an Arizona case in which I served as an expert witness –  Simmons v. Navajo County – a young inmate met with his mother and father in the jail immediately before he committed suicide.  The officer reported that at the conclusion of the visit the inmate and his parents were very upbeat and, if I recall, talking about their next visit.  When asked at their depositions why they did not alert the jail that their son was going to harm himself, they responded that they had no idea that he was going to harm himself.

In an Iowa case, Butterfield v. Linn Co., two brothers who had been arrested for a very minor offense were placed in holding cells next to each other.  After a significant period of sometimes loud interaction, one brother stopped talking.  The other brother assumed he had gone to sleep; however, when an officer came back to the holding cell area, he discovered one brother was sleeping, the other had hung himself.

Even psychiatrists lack the required clairvoyance.  In Hyslop v. Maricopa County an inmate committed suicide immediately after being returned to general population from the suicide unit where three psychiatrists had evaluated him determined he was no longer suicidal.

During the time I was the jail administrator for the Salt Lake County Jail, a man was brought to jail who had just been released from a hospital after being admitted following a suicide attempt.  When a determination was made that he was no longer suicidal he was released. Upon arriving home from the hospital, he obtained a bottle of whiskey and a razor blade and was driving to the location he’d selected to kill himself.  He was stopped by the police because he was observed drinking while driving.  Within minutes of arriving at the jail and after being frisk searched by the police officer and a jail officer, the inmate pulled the razor blade from the cuff of his trousers and slit his throat.

To further place Utah jail suicides in context, according to recently released information from the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, over the past 17 years 14 Weber County Jail inmates committed suicide.  During that same 17-year period, 231,527 inmates had spent time in the Weber County Jail – an average of 13,619 prisoners per year. Given the State of Utah’s very high suicide rate –currently, one suicide every 14 hours – less than one jail suicide per year is not indicative of a general indifference to preventing inmate suicides.

The ACLU accusations and news media coverage seems to insist that jail officials who experience very limited individual interaction with the many inmates they process, monitor, and care for should be capable of accurately anticipate each and every inmate suicide attempt, despite the inability of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and mental health professionals to do so.  The ACLU attorneys are fully aware that if jail officials are deliberately indifferent to inmate suicide risks – the constitutional standard for duty to protect – that the Utah jail officials could be culpable in litigation.  So, how many of the jails which operate under the Utah Legal-Based Jail Standards and which are inspected by the Utah Sheriffs’ Association have been found liable by federal or state courts over the past 20 years due to inmate suicides?  My guess is you can count them on one hand with fingers left over.

[1]Farmer v. Brennan,511 U.S. 825, 858-859 (1994) (Thomas, J., dissenting), quoting McGill v. Duckworth, 944 F. 2d 344, 348 (CA7 1991).

Add Your Comment