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Utah corrections officials failed to learn from Daggett inmate abuse, audit says

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New jail cells at the new Salt Lake County Jail are pictured on Monday, June 14, 1999.

Chuck Wing, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah prison officials failed to improve oversight of county jails that house state inmates after abuse and mismanagement shut down the Daggett County Jail three years ago, according to a new state audit.

Major problems with the Utah Department of Corrections’ inmate placement program have been identified over the past two decades.

“Unfortunately, UDC did not adequately learn from these issues and improve its oversight of IPP and IPP did not adequately improve its monitoring of contracted facilities,” said State Auditor John Dougall.

In 2017, the Daggett County Jail was shut down after an investigation uncovered ongoing abuse of inmates that dated back years and included officers illegally using their Tasers on inmates and forcing inmates to act as test dummies to train uncertified police dogs.

Jailers hazed and choked inmates and wrestled and boxed with them. They also slept, watched TV and played video games on duty. The jail allowed fire alarms and security cameras to remain inoperable for long periods of time.

The state ultimately removed about 80 inmates from Daggett County. The Daggett County sheriff, a lieutenant and three deputies were all charged and convicted in various plea deals.

The corrections department has contracted with county jails to house state inmates since 1988 to reduce overcrowding and help local communities increase revenue and jobs. The state pays counties $53.93 a day for housing each state inmate. Currently, 19 counties throughout the state hold state inmates, ranging from 10 to 396 beds.

According to the audit, the prison administration did not provide its investigation of the Daggett County Jail in 2018 to the manager of the inmate placement program, which is tasked with ensuring county jails housing state inmates are safe, secure and operationally sound. The prison’s response to the problems focused mostly on security, even though the most serious issues involved inmates and jailers.

“Direct observation methods, such as an inspection, do little to address inmate abuse, the exchange of favors and improper relationships between jail staff and state inmates,” according the audit. “UDC should employ monitoring methods that will increase the likelihood of detecting and preventing the inappropriate activities that occurred at the Daggett County Jail.”

Mike Haddon, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, acknowledged that the inmate placement program did not get the investigative report, but its director received “comprehensive” briefings about what happened in Daggett County. He said in a written response to the audit that the department would now provide the reports but take measures to ensure criminal investigations are not compromised.

Auditors also say the department does not adequately train jailers to conduct security checks, citing two successful escapes and one attempted escape from the Beaver County Jail. In each case, inmates climbed a section of fencing in the recreation yard next to the jail.

“If security had been sufficiently hardened after the first escape, the second and third incidents may not have occurred,” according to the audit.

Haddon said razor wire was added to the fence and Beaver County deputies were told to directly monitor inmates in the recreation yard.

In response to the audit, the state will train current and future overseers of jail contracts, including video review and retention, and train for proper interviewing processes for inmates and officers, Haddon wrote. It will also develop processes to better track and address deficiencies.