Advocacy group says Utah inmates still lack medication

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah lawmakers heard an update Wednesday on efforts to improve health care at two Utah prisons and relayed a few things they’re hearing from constituents.

“I have a constituent who contacted me,” said Rep. Sandra Hollins of Salt Lake City, “saying that her daughter is not receiving mental health medication at the new jail and that she is concerned about that.”

“Families have contacted me before” about the jail’s medical problems, Provo spokeswoman Marsha Judkins said.

Reps. Judkins and Hollins sit on the Interim Committee on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, which heard from auditors and the Utah Department of Corrections on Wednesday. Auditors last year found what they called “systematic deficiencies” in the way Utah prisons provide health care.

There were problems with everything from responding to inmates’ routine care requests to diabetes treatment to unused medication. Personal health records were found in a prison trash can. Since that review, Utah has closed Draper Prison and moved 3,600 inmates to a new prison in west Salt Lake City.

It did not solve all health problems. In August, after inmates were transferred to a new prison, the Department of Corrections lost prescription drug records when it tried to switch to a new software system. The errors affected health care at the Salt Lake City and Gunnison prisons.

“We’re working every day to get better,” said Director of Clinical Services for Corrections Steve Turley. “Some things have been implemented. I wouldn’t say they are 100%”.

Turley said 14 of the auditor’s recommendations have been implemented; the other two recommendations are ongoing.

Department of Corrections Director Brian Nielson acknowledged that widespread understaffing, both in correctional officers and medical staff, remains a barrier to providing care. Still, he said progress has been made.

“We’re offering the level of care that’s appropriate at this time, and we’re always trying to improve,” Nilsson said.

Wendy Parmley, director of medical and mental health issues for the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, told lawmakers that the organization continues to raise more health issues with inmates and families than it did at the height of the pandemic.

“Never again,” Parmley told the committee, “do I want to see a letter that says, ‘Please treat us like human beings; not like animals. We are afraid.”

Outside the hearing room, Parmley described the calls and emails she still receives.

“One person had multiple seizures without their seizure medication,” she said.

“Other people without blood pressure medication or … their blood thinners ended up in the hospital or actually dying.”

Nielson said prison staff investigate such complaints.

“So if we’re looking at people who are off medication, I would look at the accuracy of that to see how accurate that statement is,” Nielson said.

“I feel confident, in the position we’re in now, that we’re delivering the drugs on time.”

Toward the end of her boardroom remarks, Judkins told Nielson, “Thank you, but I think we’ll still be watching pretty closely.”

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