LOCAL NEWS

Over 20 assaults on officers reported at Utah’s new prison, records request reveals

Mar 2, 2023, 9:05 AM | Updated: 8:15 pm

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated with additional information from the Department of Corrections.


SALT LAKE CITY — Three days after the Utah Department of Corrections celebrated the move of 2,464 inmates to the brand-new prison facility with its new “direct supervision” model and daylight-focused design, a report is filed of an assault on an officer.

 

According to the report, an inmate sat down behind an officer and threatened to kill him. As officers tried to escort him to his cell, the inmate began to fight, punching an AP&P officer in the face, then trying to knee a different officer.

That was only the beginning.

A public records request filed by KSL TV shows at least 22 reports have been filed since that first one at the Utah State Correctional Facility (USCF) between mid-July and early February. Some involved inmates throwing objects like lunch trays or tablets at officers, others were violent attacks that required medical care at the hospital.

The Department of Corrections has addressed safety concerns publicly, explaining what’s being done to strengthen security and protocol.

In one report, a corrections officer was held hostage by an inmate who locked the officer in a shower, after the inmate hit the officer in the head with a tablet.

One of the most recent incidents led to a lockdown of two facilities.

Utah state prisons on lockdown after three assaults against officers

It’s a huge increase to what officers saw at the old Draper facility, said Chad Bennion, Executive Director of the Utah Corrections Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 14.

“How would you like to wonder what’s going to happen to you at work? If you’re going to be assaulted, if you’re going to come home? What are the things that could happen today?” Bennion asked. “It’s a huge risk, and it’s been growing since we went into the new facility at USCF.”

The records request only covered physical violence, and didn’t include reports involving bodily fluids, like throwing urine from a cup at an officer, or spitting on them. Bennion has heard of plenty of incidents like that, too.

A late October report outlines how an inmate used a toothbrush with broken razor blades attached on the end as a weapon in an attack against a sergeant, with the inmate slashing and punching the sergeant’s face. It left the sergeant with wounds on his face and head, and broken glasses.

According to the report, other inmates had to jump in to stop the attack. They helped the sergeant by physically shielding him and pushed the attacker away until officers could arrive.

Bennion believes the direct supervision model, paired with severe understaffing, is playing a huge role in the number of assaults. With the prison hundreds of officers short, he explained that the direct supervision model– in which an officer is stationed in an open setting with inmates– isn’t working as intended.

He was hoping for more than $40 million of funding for hiring and retention this legislative session, but it’s likely to be a fraction of that.

“There’s some design issues with regards to the linear construction, all in line. There are a lot of blind spots, and obstructions,” Bennion said. “When you couple that with the staffing shortages, and that’s not getting the real support from the governor’s office to really get the funding to either make corrections with the facility or with regards to the staffing levels.”

Governor, lawmakers to address 3 inmate attacks on guards at Utah prisons

AP&P agents from across the state and corrections officers have to fill in the understaffing gaps with mandatory overtime, Bennion explained, often working posts or shifts they aren’t used to working and pulling 140 hours in a two-week span.

“There needs to be stability, both on the employee side of it for the officers, and also for the inmates,” Bennion said. “Because if you’ve got an officer or agent who is just working a post, you’re in an assignment. You don’t know how that interaction with the inmate is going to go, you don’t know what their behaviors are.”

In mid-December, an AP&P agent from Hurricane was assigned to work an overtime shift at the USCF. The agent reported that he was punched in the back of the head, side of the face, and right eye area several times by an inmate.

According to the AP&P agent and another officer working alongside him, the inmate got upset because he thought the AP&P agent was laughing at him and decided to attack. After a trip to a medical facility, the agent was left to recuperate in a hotel room because he was so far from home.

“We need to solve these problems and right now if we can’t get that type of funding necessary, we’re probably going to see more of a deficit with people retiring and leaving because of the safety concerns,” Bennion said.

The records were released days after the Department of Corrections held a press conference to explain what it is doing to improve safety and security at USCF.

“We are in mandatory overtime, we understand that’s a stress on our staff,” said Brian Nielsen, Utah Department of Corrections Executive Director.

He added that 25 people started the academy this week, and that efforts have improved regarding recruiting and retaining corrections officers.

He said they’ve done an after-action review on every incident. After three assaults took place over the course of a couple weeks, Nielsen explained that the DOC initiated a robust process through all levels of prison operations to develop a safety plan.

“We’ve addressed those thoroughly; we continue to make progress here with Utah State Correctional Facility the way that we house and the way that we operate,” he said, in the press conference.

He said they’re still needing 135 full-time corrections officers, in order to take current employees off of mandatory overtime and move to voluntary overtime.

Other aspects of addressing the assaults, he indicated, included developing better communication.

“It is a lot more than just needing more staff,” he said. “The site that we’re at requires more staff than the Draper site did, but that’s not the end of the story.”

Nielsen said they took immediate action right away after the recent assaults to improve safety and security, and they’re implementing shorter-term fixes.

He described how they’re addressing infrastructure needs, like adding cameras or mirrors in additional areas where there’s a blind spot or corner.

They’ve requested national experts come in as well, he said.

As far as the direct supervision model and whether the constant change of staff working mandatory overtimes hinders its operation, Nielsen said they’re working on a plan to make sure employees work in a more consistent environment.

“The potential with direct supervision is to have a more safe and secure environment, not less, because you can address things earlier and not have those bigger incidents happen,” he said.

Nielsen said they’ve gotten great support from state legislators, as they engage with legislative partners.

“It takes lots of steps. There’s not one cure. There’s not one fix for big problems,” he said.

Bennion said he’s been working with state legislators and said $15 million was appropriated for officer wages, but that Governor Spencer Cox is instead recommending $4 million.

The Department of Corrections clarified Thursday that the governor’s office was recommending $4.4 million on top of more than $19 million allocated for the DOC.

Thursday was a huge day for the Department of Corrections, because Bennion said the Executive Appropriations Committee would announce how much funding the Department of Corrections would receive in the coming year.

He believes the problems won’t be solved until they can hire more staff.

“Our state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police has also been looking into these,” Bennion said, of the assaults. “So, there’s a lot of eyes starting to look on these things and we hope that with this attention, these things will get fixed.”

The Department of Corrections said Thursday that it is working with the Utah State Fraternal Order of Police, and continues to work with the state FOP.

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Over 20 assaults on officers reported at Utah’s new prison, records request reveals