Southwest Utah bucks state, national trend of inmate suicides

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ST. GEORGE — Across Utah, suicide is the single most common cause of death in county jail. That’s according to the first death in custody report from the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

On a larger scale, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that in federal and state prisons across the U.S., roughly 4,400 inmates die every year. Most of those deaths are because of health-related reasons.

However, in county jails – such as the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane – more than a third of all deaths result from suicide, making it the leading cause of in-custody death for jail inmates nationwide. More than 70% of those deaths take place before the inmate is convicted of any crime.

Utah saw the highest prisoner death rate per capita in the U.S. in 2017, the Department of Justice report showed. To address the issue, the Utah Legislature passed a law in March 2018 specifically requiring reports on prisoner deaths in both the state’s prisons and local jails on an annual basis.

The first death in custody report released by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice revealed that, of the 71 deaths reported in Utah county jails over a five-year period, 38 were suicides, which is more than half of all county jail deaths and higher than the national average.

Within the state prison inmate population, on the other hand, the numbers look very different. Suicides make up 10% of all inmate deaths at the state level.

Southern Utah avoids the national trend

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According to the National Institute of Corrections, suicide rates within incarcerated populations are “far higher than the national averages,” with inmate suicides reported at a higher rate than juvenile and LGBTQ populations.

The Department of Justice study showed that while the suicide rate for state and federal inmates has dropped “nearly threefold over the last 20 years,” county jail suicide rates have not.

However, Purgatory Correctional Facility’s health services administrator, John Worlton, told St. George News there has not been an inmate suicide in nearly three years.

The Department of Justice identified four primary attributes of the incarceration environment that place the inmate population at risk: diminished personal control, areas of isolation/privacy, separation from social support networks, and lack of mental health resources.

In regards to the latter, Worlton said Purgatory has implemented a comprehensive mental health program to help those who may otherwise slip through the cracks.

“We have a strong emphasis on helping inmates suffering from mental health issues,” Worlton said, “and the number of inmates with these issues continues to go up.”

Iron County Jail has not had an inmate suicide for several years, Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter said. However, much like Worlton, he added that his corrections officers are “extremely busy with inmates who end up on suicide watch after intake.”

Those inmates are monitored closely and are under constant surveillance, he said.

“The goal is to preserve their life and get them the help they need.”

Carpenter added that mental health issues are an important factor when dealing with the subject of suicide in the inmate population in Iron County and elsewhere.

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Substance abuse and withdrawal

Warning signs of suicide specific to the inmate population include an inmate making a suicidal statement at the time of arrest, rehearsal behaviors observed by staff, an inmate trying to get a single cell and medication hoarding.

In order to address the issue of medication, besides requiring annual reports on prisoner deaths, the law passed by the Utah Legislature in 2018 also requires an examination of jail protocols related to prisoners suffering from drug withdrawal and overdoses. It outlines which medications are allowed, as well as including recommended treatment plans for prisoners addicted to opiates or other substances when they are booked into jail.

Worlton said Washington County provides medications and monitoring for inmates who enter the jail system addicted to various substances. During the booking process, he said, inmates are screened by a nurse to determine if there is a substance abuse history and if the inmate is at risk of experiencing withdrawals.

If this is considered a possibility, the inmate is housed in a dedicated area where they can be monitored closely and any medical issue can be addressed to treat the withdrawal symptoms.

The Iron County Jail also has withdrawal protocols with medications designed to treat alcohol, opiate and other withdrawal symptoms.

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