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This article was written and published by Standard Examiner. To view the original article, please click here: New jail medical wing set to open in Davis County

FARMINGTON — Six years after Davis County led the state in prisoner deaths, the Sheriff’s Office is putting the finishing touches on a new, $8.2 million medical wing for the close observation of inmates with illnesses, injuries, substance withdrawal or suicide risk.

In 2016, six inmates died at the jail, including Heather Miller, 28, who fell from her bunk and bled to death internally of a severed spleen. Miller’s mother, Cynthia Stella of Reno, Nevada, has a civil rights suit against the county that goes to trial next month. A jail nurse did not check Miller’s vital signs.

“I’m glad and sad,” Stella said Thursday when told that the new wing will be dedicated Monday. “I wish it would have been available for my daughter then, but it’s fortunate it will be available for others.”

The wing, built behind existing jail cell blocks, has space for 33 inmates, compared to the 30-year-old, six-prisoner unit inside the jail. On the night of Miller’s death, there was no room in the medical unit, so jailers put her in an unused cell.

The nurse’s station in the new wing is in a central position with great vantage points into all cells, said Stephanie Dinsmore, sheriff’s office spokesperson. The wing also is equipped with negative-pressure cells where inmates with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or COVID-19 can be isolated and treated.

Utah jails reported a record 26 deaths in 2016, a toll that kicked off a reform movement. That included state legislation requiring annual county reports on the numbers and causes of jail deaths and ongoing studies about suicide prevention and the care of addicted prisoners.

Construction began on the observation wing in February 2020 after the county commission approved a bond. Dinsmore said Thursday the project ended up coming in $90,000 under budget.

“Our mission of improving the lives of those in Davis County is a tangible reality with this brand-new medical facility,” Sheriff Kelly Sparks said in a prepared statement. “With an emphasis on telehealth, more medical care will be provided on site, greatly reducing the number of inmates transported out of the facility.”

Sparks took office in 2019.

A need for better jail medical capabilities became obvious around the state not only when deaths increased, but as many more arrestees arrived with substance abuse or mental health issues. In 1991, the Davis jail wing was sufficient to care for a small number of inmates with mostly minor conditions.

Dinsmore said officials expect that the new wing will be fully in use within two weeks as inmates are transferred over from the old wing and other finishing details are handled.

She said the new wing will not have a larger nursing staff. In fact, she said the county is recruiting for registered nurse openings in the unit.

Stella said that as scrutiny increased on jails after the 2016 deaths, she was happy to see that as policies were tightened and public attention grew, many jails had fewer deaths. But in the Davis, Weber and Box Elder county jails, trouble resumed in recent years.

The Davis jail reported three deaths in 2020, all suicides, and three the following year, including a suicide and two due to medical issues.

At the Weber County Jail in Ogden, officials reported two deaths in 2019, four in 2020 and one each in 2021 and this year. Half were suicides, one was investigated as suspicious and two were considered drug overdose related.

Box Elder County’s jail in Brigham City went several years without an inmate death, but there’s been one in each of the past three years.

Stella said she’s happy that Weber County is considering an expanded jail medical operation as well.

“My hope is that these are signs of changes for the better for Utah and for people who end up in jail there,” she said. “No one should die because they had a misdemeanor crime, or any crime, or an accident in there.”