Thousands of Jail Deaths Blamed on ‘Suicide, Botched Health Care, Bad Jailkeeping’

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jail deaths

Illustration courtesy Vera Institute of Justice

Over half of the 7,571 jail inmates who died between 2008 to 2019 were never convicted and were still awaiting trial, reports Reuters.

Reuters conducted an investigation into 523 of the United States’ biggest jails, submitting over 1,500 public records requests. The data collected from 2008 to 2019 reflects a 35 percent increase of jail deaths in the last decade

Some 4,998 of the 7,571 inmate deaths reported were of individuals in pretrial detention.

According to the report, the staggering number of deaths is due to “suicide, botched healthcare and bad jail keeping.”

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has been collecting jail fatality data for the past 20 years, but under 1984 legislation, this data is kept confidential as a way to encourage police to accurately report deaths. The privacy of the data is considered “critical” to its accuracy.

Although data privacy through the bureau might encourage local police to report accurate statistics, it doesn’t stop the misattribution of deaths.

The Reuters investigation found that over 2,000 of the 7,571 inmate deaths were due to suicide “amid mental breakdowns.” Reports to the Justice Department sometimes list suicides or homicides as “accidents or illnesses,” implicating that the data that provided to the Justice Department does have is most likely skewed.

Jails can also remove an inmate from the roster by releasing them on the basis of hospitalization with a grave condition. Although claiming that these “compassionate releases” will give family members one last chance to spend time with the inmate, Reuters noted this is a way for jails to avoid responsibility and lower their total number of deaths.

Additionally, with no prior public record of jail death data except for what the Bureau of Justice Statistics sparingly reports, there’s no evidence to incite jail reform.

Although the Justice Department conducts investigations based on data received from jails, the number of investigations is low, with only 19 investigations opened from 2008 to 2019, only three of which were opened during the Trump administration.

Even more sparse are the reports meant to be issued regularly by the bureau that show state and nation-wide trends in jail deaths from the private data they collect. As the only real resource to jail fatality statistics, these reports are crucial to identifying trends that can incite reform within jails.

Reuters noted that the bureau’s 2016 report wasn’t issued until this year, and a justice spokesman said there are “no plans” to issue any further reports.

Such a high rate of death among jail inmate populations also reflects a problem with America’s “innocent until proven guilty” mentality within the court system.

Almost 300 of those who died within jail spent a year or more awaiting their trial, the report says.

While the article notes that constitutional rights such as that to a fair and speedy trial, as well as protection from cruel and unusual punishment should prevent severe maltreatment within the jail system, the inability to clearly define “fair,” “speedy,” and “unusual” continue to leave inmates with loose protections.

A comprehensive list of statistics found from the investigation can be found here.

Read more: Bail Reform No Threat to Public Safety: Former NY Chief Judge

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

2 thoughts on “Thousands of Jail Deaths Blamed on ‘Suicide, Botched Health Care, Bad Jailkeeping’

  1. Emily Riley good job on the article….Washington State Patrol ran a sting for 5 years, funded by a religious group, OUR, NYT magazine article 8-27-20 by Mike Winerip. The young men, 65 younger than 25, sat in jails for up to 2 years. In solitary confinement. 3 men in a 2 man cell. Locked in 22 hours a day. Many became sick. Their stories are tragedies….

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