Deaths Behind Bars Spur Concerns Across the U.S.

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Illustration courtesy Vera Institute of Justice

On July 10, 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for what she was told by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia was failing to use her turn signal.

Three days after Bland’s arrest, she was found dead in the jail cell where she had been booked on a charge of assaulting a police officer.

The officer has since been fired for violating departmental standards. But Bland’s death, which was ruled a suicide, has raised troubling questions about whether jail authorities took sufficient measures that could have avoided her suicide—or at least, paid more attention to her troubled mental state at the time of her arrest.

Those questions extend far beyond Texas.

A Guardian investigation has found significant increases in jail and prison deaths across the U.S. Texas, with the nation’s largest prison population, has seen a 20-year high in prison suicides; 2018 recorded the state’s highest number of in-custody prison deaths since at least 2005.

In-custody deaths have risen steadily since 2000 in Florida, with the third-highest prison population in the U.S. In 2017, the state registered a record 428 deaths.

While the majority of deaths in state prisons are due to natural causes among an aging prison population, there have also been significant rises in mortality rates due to suicides, homicides, accidents, drug and alcohol-related events, and untreated medical issues.

Editor’s Note: a 2016 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded 3,927 inmate deaths in state and federal prisons (3,483 in state prisons alone) in 2014, the last year for which nationwide figures were available, which it called “the largest number of inmate deaths reported in state and federal prisons” since researchers began collecting such data in 2001.

In Utah, at least 71 people died in jails over the past five years, with half those deaths a result of suicide and most within a week of an individual entering jail. The state’s jails have the highest death rate per capita in the U.S.

In August 2018, 16 deaths in Mississippi jails in a single month prompted an FBI investigation.

In California, a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the state’s prison population resulted in prisoners being transferred to county jails. Unequipped to handle the influx, those prisons have experienced spikes in homicides.

Prisoners in Michigan are dying at the state’s highest rate in decades, and 2018 saw the most prison fatalities in the state since at least 1994, though prison deaths are not consistently tracked by the state.

A record number of prisoners committed suicide in South Carolina in 2018; homicides within the state prison system are also on the rise.

A 2017 report published by the Rand Corporation identified several high-priority challenges to reduce prison mortality rates, including the lack of a nationwide “medical examiner system.”

“A national medical examiner system should be implemented because of the additional rigor these professionals have, and more consistency with how they do investigations and classify cause of death,” Joe Russo, the lead author of the report, said in an interview with the Guardian.

The report noted an underlying issue in addressing prison mortality rates: the inadequate reporting methods used by various jurisdictions throughout the U.S.

For instance, New Jersey has one of the highest U.S. mortality rates in county jails, but exact numbers remain unknown because of unreliable data collection and reporting.

Based on available data, county jails in New Jersey saw a 55 percent increase in prison suicides between 2012 and 2016. The New Jersey Department of Corrections announced some changes in December 2018 to address prison suicides, but prison reform advocates are pushing for more reforms.

Lack of Accountability, Oversight

“Robust, meaningful oversight and accountability is required at many levels,” said Tess Borden, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey. “[Particularly] of medical contractors, of jail policies and practices, of county decision-making and reporting,”

“Other countries have a lot of oversight, the U.S. does not,” added Dr. Josiah Rich, director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights and professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University.

During the same period of rising mortality rates in Florida prisons, the state government made drastic cuts in staffing and prison programs.

In Alabama, significant budget shortfalls and widespread understaffing in prison and jails throughout the state contributed to surges in prison mortality rates. About 15 suicides have occurred in Alabama prisons since December 2017, and the state prisons have a homicide rate 10 times higher than the national average.

“There are a lot of people working to try to fix the problems in the Alabama department of corrections, with understaffing being the root of the problem,” said Ashley Austin, a law fellow at the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

In an April 2019 report, the Department of Justice said that Alabama’s prison system likely violates the U.S. Constitution in its failure to adequately provide safe conditions for prisoners.

Only one-third of the state’s correctional officers are authorized to adequately operate the prisons, while the state’s prisons are overcrowded by nearly twice their designed capacity.

Prisons and jails throughout the U.S. are plagued by surges in mortality rates due to varying degrees of underfunding, understaffing, and negligence— exacerbated by inadequate facilities for addressing serious mental health and substance abuse issues of individuals caught within the criminal justice system, the Guardian found.

More than half of state and sentenced jail prisoners meet the criteria for drug dependence and abuse. Around 14.5 percent of men and over 31 percent of women in prison suffer from serious mental health illnesses.

Once in prison or jail, many of these individuals receive little or no treatment for their illnesses.

Janice Dotson Stephens was one of them.

The 61-year-old, who suffered from mental health problems, died in Bexar County Jail, Texas, on Dec. 14, 2018, after spending five months behind bars for a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespassing on a $300 bond. She never saw a courtroom during that time span, while waiting for a psychiatric evaluation that was never conducted.

“We received the medical records two weeks ago,” said attorney Leslie Sachanowicz, who is representing the family in a lawsuit against Bexar County, the arresting officer, and the health services provider.

“We discovered she lost 136 pounds in 150 days and [that] they knew when she was booked she had hypertension and schizoaffective disorder; it was already in their database.”

Sachanowicz said that her medication history, while she was in custody, was entirely blank.

“There was no treatment for Ms. Dotson-Stephens,” he said.

Additional Reading: A Sentinel Events Approach to Addressing Suicide and Self-Harm in Jail.

Michael Sainato, a staff writer for the Guardian, is a 2019 John Jay/H.F. Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a slightly condensed and edited version of an article prepared for his Fellowship reporting project. Read the full story here.

One thought on “Deaths Behind Bars Spur Concerns Across the U.S.

  1. Many of the suicides and natural causes deaths are actually murders. The jails and prisons do everything they can to use one of those as cause of death to reduce their culpability.

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