Apr 26, 2024 - News

Jury awards $350k for torture at defunct Utah jail with history of abuse, escapes

A fax cover sheet shows a letterhead for the Daggett County Sheriff's Office, with a cartoon drawing of a dancing constable.

The letterhead on a fax from the Daggett County Sheriff's Office to this reporter in 2009. Photo: Erin Alberty/Axios

A defunct Utah jail is in the spotlight one more time after a federal jury this week awarded more than $350,000 to former inmates who said the guards tortured them for fun.

Why it matters: This is likely the former Daggett County jail's final appearance on the public stage after a notorious history of staff wrongdoing and inmate escapes.

Catch up quick: Former inmates reported that guards repeatedly shocked them for entertainment, ordered a police dog to bite them in training and withheld medical care.

  • Inmates described suffering PTSD and constant fear from the bullying and torture.
  • Five officers pleaded guilty in 2017 to various assault and misconduct charges, including former Sheriff Jerry Jorgensen, who investigators said was aware of the problems and let them continue.
  • The inmates filed a lawsuit over the abuse in 2018.

The state shut down the jail in 2017 after investigators corroborated inmates' complaints — and also found jail guards were sleeping on the job and firing stun guns at coworkers and inmates, who were promised soda if they submitted to the shocks.

The intrigue: The state had contracted with Daggett County to house some of its overflow prison population in the county's oversized jail: 80 beds for Daggett's 992 residents.

The latest: In a 2020 audit of the state's outsourcing of prisoners to county jails, investigators found corrections officials "did not adequately learn" from abuses at Daggett, or implement safeguards to prevent their recurrence elsewhere.

Flashback: This has not been the Daggett jail's first time under scrutiny.

In 2007, two inmates convicted of first-degree murder escaped in broad daylight. It took the lone guard more than three hours to notice their absence.

  • State officials in Salt Lake did not get word until the next day, and the murder victims' families (whom the inmates had threatened in court) learned about the escape on the news.
  • The men ambushed a resident at knifepoint in a nearby trailer home, bound him in duct tape and stole his SUV, which contained multiple guns. They were caught after a high-speed chase and police shootout in Wyoming.

Problems continued after that.

  • In 2014, a contracted jail worker pleaded guilty to having sex with an inmate in exchange for dropped charges of bringing unspecified contraband into the jail.
  • In 2015, yet another inmate escaped from Daggett deputies while being driven back to the jail from the courthouse.

Erin's thought bubble: I submitted a public records request to the Daggett County sheriff's office in 2009.

  • The reply fax from the embattled department was emblazoned with a letterhead that showed a cartoon constable dancing joyously.

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