Thousands of innocent people die in US jails

(Reuters) – The death rate in more than 500 top US jails has risen more than 8 per cent since the last official data was released in 2016, a Reuters investigation found, led overwhelmingly by people never convicted of their alleged crime.

After levelling off in 2016, the death rate climbed overall in the first three years of the Trump administration to the highest point in the 12-year period of 2008-2019 examined by Reuters.

Using more than 1,500 public records requests, Reuters surveyed 523 jails for 12 years of inmate death records — all US jails with 750 or more inmates, plus the 10 biggest jails or jail systems in most states. The resulting database is the largest accounting of jail deaths outside the US federal government. It details more than 7,500 inmate deaths in a universe of jails that accounts for three-fifths of the total US jail population.

At least two-thirds of the deceased inmates identified by Reuters between 2008 and 2019, or 4,998 people, were still awaiting their day in court and presumed innocent when they died, never convicted of the charges on which they were being held.

The death rate in the 500-plus jails soared 35 per cent over the decade ending last year, Reuters found, fuelled by illness, suicide and overdoses from drugs and alcohol in facilities that get little oversight and sometimes provide inadequate medical and mental health services.

More than 2,000 took their own lives, including some 1,500 awaiting trial or indictment. A growing number — more than 1 in 10 last year — died from the acute effects of drugs and alcohol. Nearly 300 died after languishing behind bars, unconvicted, for a year or more.

The data shows that over the past three years, the suicide rate in jails declined as many facilities launched suicide awareness and response initiatives. But the death rate from drug and alcohol overdoses increased by about 72 per cent amid the opioid epidemic.

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has collected inmate mortality data for two decades. It issues reports with national-level data on jail deaths and some state-level numbers. But death statistics for individual jails are withheld from the public, government officials and oversight agencies under a 1984 law limiting the release of BJS data. The Reuters report identified jails with high death rates going back a decade.

The most recent BJS report on jail deaths at the national level was issued in 2016. Justice officials told Reuters they have no current plans to issue additional reports.

The data captures jails in 44 states plus the District of Columbia. It does not include six other states — five where all detention facilities are managed by unified state corrections agencies (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island and Vermont), and Alaska, which uses a hybrid model that also relies largely on a network of state-run facilities.