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We made mistakes, Utah corrections chief says

Patterson says policies on inmates under review

Tom Patterson
Tom Patterson

Saying that "transparency and accountability" are two of the main factors in properly running a prison, Utah Department of Corrections executive director Tom Patterson answered tough questions Thursday from students and residents about two high-profile escapes of inmates.

Patterson was the guest forum speaker at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He said while some information must be kept secret for security, a prison must be transparent, or open, to the public so Utahns can better understand the prison and its needs.

The department must be accountable for its actions, even when the worst events happen, he said.

"The way we address these is to be open ... own up when we make mistakes."

When Patterson took over as head of the department earlier this year, after two legislative audits skewered certain policies and practices, he said he was told, "There are two things that can get you fired ... escapes and officers that die."

Over the past four months, the Utah Department of Corrections has had both.

In June, authorities say, Curtis Allgier shot and killed corrections officer Stephen Anderson at a University of Utah medical facility during an escape. Allgier was recaptured following a wild chase and confrontation inside a Salt Lake City fast-food restaurant. The incident raised questions about why only one guard was used to transport an offender with documented violence and management problems and why certain medical procedures occur routinely off prison grounds.

"We're fortunate more people didn't get harmed or killed," Patterson said.

Even though the money wasn't in the budget, Patterson afterward ordered two guards for every prisoner transport. He hopes Utah lawmakers will approve the cost of the policy change in his $270 million budget next legislative session.

The other high-profile event was the recent escape of two convicted murderers being housed at the Daggett County Jail. Patterson said many breakdowns in the system were exposed, including the lack of communication among prison officials. Some corrections officials were apparently told of the escape, but Patterson said he didn't find out until he read about it in a newspaper online the next day.

"That's troublesome," he said.

Patterson later met with the families of murder victims Lindsey Fawson and Tammy Syndergaard, who also heard about the escapes from the media.

"Tears were shed. I got a slight glimpse of what they were going through," he said.

The image of the grieving parents "was lasered on my mind and my heart," Patterson said. The mother of a victim told Patterson that the system had failed.

"All I could say is, 'You're right. It did.'"

Like the Allgier situation, Patterson said, it was fortunate that no one else was seriously injured while Juan Diaz-Arevalo and Danny Gallegos were on the run, especially retired Salt Lake City police officer Bill Johnson, 79, who was assaulted and tied up by the killers. Patterson called Johnson a "hero" but admitted he was puzzled that Gallegos and Diaz-Arevalo spared Johnson's life.

Patterson said all policies concerning placement of inmates in local jails are under review. One area that might be considered is the date of an inmate's next parole hearing and how that could factor into escape attempts. The Daggett County inmates didn't have hearings scheduled until 2025 and 2030.

County jails are needed because the prison is "bulging at the seams," Patterson said. With about 6,500 inmates to house, the state prison runs about 97 percent capacity, he said. About 20 percent of inmates, or 1,555 men and women, are housed in county jails.

One of prison's biggest, constant problems are budget issues. Patterson wants to see salaries increased to keep quality employees at the prison. Currently, about 70 percent of his staff have second jobs to make ends meet, he said.