Mental Illness in Utah Jails: How Wait Times For Treatment Harm Inmates

Jun 26, 2017

In Utah, wait times for mental health services for inmates are significantly longer than in any of the six neighboring states. These inmates have yet to face trial, because they’ve been ruled mentally unable to do so. In order to be tried, they first need rehabilitation at the Utah State Hospital, the only institution in the state that can treat them. The hospital has a months-long waiting list.

In their piece, “The new asylums: How Utah traps the mentally ill behind bars,” Deseret News reporters Daphne Chen and McKenzie Romero write that nearly 70 people who are supposed to be receiving mental health treatment are instead being held in Utah jails.

Chen said, at the time the article was written this May, Utah inmates faced the longest wait by far when compared with six neighboring states.

“Colorado takes about 17 days; several places like Arizona don’t have any waiting lists at all,” Chen said. “And in comparison, in Utah, it takes several months to get there, about five months right now.”

Romero and Chen reported the wait time to enter the Utah State Hospital has doubled each year between 2012 and 2015. According to state documents reviewed in their piece, 20 percent of the state’s mental health spending goes towards “competency restoration.” This is about $20 million per year spent on rehabilitating inmates so they can go to court after their mental health has worsened, rather than providing preventative care at an earlier time.

Romero and Chen tell the story of  31-year-old Matthew Hall, a father of two who spent months waiting to be admitted to the Utah State Hospital.

“His condition was worsening clearly very quickly,” Chen said. “I mean, the jail records show that very soon after he was there, the guards were worried about him, his fellow inmates were worried about him. He was zombie-like sometimes, walking around in a daze.”

During this time, his court-appointed lawyer said there were times when he felt he couldn’t communicate with him.

“The judge eventually ordered him to get mental health treatment at the Utah State Hospital,” Chen said. “But from that point on, he waited, and waited, and waited because they could not find a bed for him. It took about six months, and this entire time, the jail logs show that he is just getting even worse.”

One night, he attempted suicide by repeatedly smashing his head against the wall of his cell. He died of his injuries before he could receive mental health treatment.

In May, 35 individuals were waiting to be placed in one of the 100 beds in the Utah State Hospital.

In 2015, the Disability Law Center and its legal director, Aaron Kinikini sued the state hospital on behalf of three inmates who should have received treatment, but were held in jail for six months or longer, sometimes even longer than legally allowed. Discussions about settlement are ongoing.

According to Chen, officials at the center say the lack of early intervention is a key component of this problem.

“This is what the Disability Law Center says could be the solution,” Chen said. “Finding people earlier on before they reach this point, offering them treatment and services, rather than just locking them up and allowing them to continue to decline.”