Senate report finds nearly 1,000 uncounted deaths in prisons

Reporters tour the St. Louis Justice Center in St. Louis on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Sept. 20 (UPI) — Nearly 1,000 deaths in state and local prisons went uncounted by the federal government in fiscal year 2021, according to a newly released bipartisan Senate report.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations will hold a hearing on the report Tuesday.

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., the subcommittee’s chairman, said that there were “shocking long-term gaps in federal oversight.”

The 10-month investigation into how the Justice Department oversees the Death in Custody Reporting Act accuses the agency of missing deaths in counts that are available to the public.

The law also requires state and federal agencies to report in-custody death information to the attorney general, who must then provide the results to Congress. That information was due at the end of 2016, but it won’t be ready until 2024, according to the report.

Seventy percent of records supplied to the Justice Department were also missing at least some information related to the deaths.

“DOJ’s failure to implement DCRA has deprived Congress and the American public of information about who is dying in custody and why,” the report says. “This information is critical to improve transparency in prisons and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action — such as failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health services, or safeguard prisoners from violence — and identifying specific facilities with outlying death rates.”

Christine Tartaro, a professor of criminal justice at Stockton University in New Jersey, told NBC News that she was befuddled by a lack of transparency in mortality data when she was writing a book on suicide in prisons.

“We can’t fix what we don’t know is broken,” Tartaro said, “and if we don’t have the data, we can’t tell where the problems are.”

According to the most recent Justice Department data, 4,234 people died in state and federal prisons in 2019, a 6.6% decrease from 2018. But the 143 homicides in state prisons in 2019 were the most recorded since collection began in 2000.


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