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While families fear for inmate health, others worry about prison violence

Posted at 9:39 PM, Aug 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-28 23:28:02-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Ginny Robertson spends her retirement worrying about the health of Utah prison inmates.

Robertson has been a nurse and nurse practitioner; she has a family member in the new prison in Salt Lake City. That inmate and others have been telling her about missing their medications.

One letter she read to FOX 13 was from an inmate who said he recently bought his blood pressure medication from another inmate.

"We are in the United States, and we should not tolerate poor medical care,” Robertson said. “There's no reason for it."

The Utah Department of Corrections acknowledged the extent of the problem on Sunday and briefed reporters again Thursday. The switch to a new computer system for medical records on Aug. 1 caused the department to lose 15,000 prescriptions and other data.

“We’re within days of having a more normal operation and knowing that we’re delivering the services that we know we’re required to,” Corrections Director Brian Nielson said Thursday.

He said Corrections has brought in staff from the Utah Department of Health to examine inmates and fill prescriptions.

Robertson said she’s heard from one inmate who has been without his heart medication for six days.

“It is as if [Corrections is] unaware of who is without medicine,” she said.

The computer problems are compounded by a staff shortage. Nielson told the Utah Legislature last week the new billion-dollar prison only has 60% of its needed employees.

Remaining workers have had to work mandatory overtime.

“You're talking about people who are putting in 144 hours every two weeks,” said Chad Bennion, who represents corrections officers as executive director of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 14.

Bennion, who also is a former state legislator, worries the labor shortage could lead to violence against officers or inmates.

“You develop a rapport,” Bennion explained. “You know how someone's going to react in a certain instance as an inmate. But also, too, if you've got somebody new in a post and they misinterpret the language, there could be more forced that may be necessary or not.”

Bennion wants Gov. Spencer Cox to call the Legislature into a special session. Then, Bennion said, lawmakers should spend money to boost pay for corrections officers to retain them and lure recruits. The department sent a tweet Thursday advertising corrections officer jobs with a starting pay of $27.33 an hour.

Corrections officers aren’t the only thing the prison in Salt Lake City and Gunnison are missing. Nielson acknowledged Thursday the prisons remain reliant on EMTs to distribute medications and provide basic medical care.

A state audit in 2021 said prison EMTs were being called upon for jobs they weren’t qualified to perform. Nielson said Corrections would like to transition nurses into those roles, but doesn’t have enough. He encouraged nurses to apply for corrections jobs, too.

Robertson wants an army of health professionals to go into the prison to give every inmate a fresh examination and updated prescriptions.

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