State announces five new prison COVID-19 deaths from December and January; ACLU decries ‘dangerous lack of transparency’
Medical examiner’s findings push total of COVID-19-related deaths at prison to 16, Corrections Department says
SALT LAKE CITY — Autopsies have revealed that five more prison inmates died of causes tied to COVID-19 in December and January, Utah corrections officials announced Thursday.
It wasn’t clear whether the five men, whose deaths previously weren’t reported, were hospitalized at the time they died. Four were 65 to 84 years old, and one was 45 to 64.
The Utah Department of Corrections said new information from the Office of the Medical Examiner shifted the tally of COVID-19-related deaths to 16, with a total of more than 3,310 inmates testing positive. The office concluded that two previously announced deaths were in fact “due to other, non-COVID factors,” while another two — also reported earlier — were still being examined.
A day earlier, the prison was reporting 15 total deaths of those who tested positive for the virus.
“We express our deepest condolences to the families and friends who have lost an incarcerated loved one from this pandemic,” said Brian Nielson, executive director for the Utah Department of Corrections.
Sara Wolovick, an ACLU attorney focused on inmates’ rights, said it’s a problem that the prison didn’t tell the public that several men had died until months later.
“This disturbing information about the higher death toll really demonstrates the need for a legislative audit into the deaths and the way the Department of Corrections handled the outbreak, which infected half their prisoners and hundreds of corrections staff,” Wolovick said. “It’s a dangerous lack of transparency.’
The ACLU petitioned the Utah Supreme Court in April 2020, seeking greater releases of older inmates, those medically vulnerable and others nearing their parole dates. The state’s high court rejected the bid, saying the group lacked legal standing.
The organization continues to raise concerns about inadequate medical care for those incarcerated in the pandemic, but Utah’s jailers and prison officials have maintained they have taken the right precautions and provided good care for everyone who needs it.
While some inmates nearing their parole dates have been released early, others with health problems remain at the prison.
Many of the 16 who died had complicating comorbidities, the department said. Three men died at the prison’s central Utah site in Gunnison; the remainder at its Draper location.
In its Thursday announcement, the prison acknowledged a shift in how it’s reporting its numbers.
It’s now waiting until the medical examiner determines an official cause to publicly announce deaths of those considered recovered. It is continuing to report deaths of those who were within three weeks of a diagnosis or who still had symptoms.
Corrections spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted said the change better aligns with the metrics the Utah Department of Health is using, and the department will continue to notify the public when it receives reports from the medical examiner.
“We’re just trying to be open and transparent about COVID-19,” Felsted said.
The department said it’s working closely with state and county health officials, and 184 being held there have received a first dose of a vaccine.
“Incarcerated individuals’ health remains our top priority as we continue to navigate through these difficult times,” Nielson said.