Between 2008 and 2019, 7,571 inmates died in the U.S.’s largest jails. Of these, 4,998 were people arrested on minor charges who never had their day in court. Those are the findings of a Reuters investigation into fatalities in the country’s 500 biggest jails. These jails had a minimum of 750 inmates and included the 10 largest jail systems in most states.
The statistics represent approximately 3/5ths of all U.S. jails. The investigation did not include six states – Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont – in which the states run the jail system rather than counties or municipalities.
State and federal prisons hold those convicted of serious crimes. Jails, on the other hand, operate on the local level and house those serving short sentences for relatively minor crimes or who are awaiting arraignment or trial.
Jail Death Rate Rising
The investigation found the U.S. jail death rate rose by more than 8 percent since 2016. The first three years of the Trump administration coincided with the highest rise in the 12-year period examined.
Causes of Jail Death
The majority of inmates dying in jail succumbed to illness. However, more than 2,000 of these jail deaths were suicides. Of these, 1,500 were awaiting indictment or trial. Roughly 10 percent of jail inmate deaths resulted from drug or alcohol abuse.
In the past few years, the number of jail deaths by suicide has declined. More jails have put suicide awareness and prevention programs in place, which may account for the decrease. However, the number of inmates dying in jail due to substance abuse has increased substantially and continues to rise.
Almost 300 jail inmates died after a year or more in confinement with no conviction.
Many of these deaths were preventable. As noted, suicide rates have declined as better mental health protocols are adopted. Medical care in most jails is notoriously inadequate. Better health care would lower jail death rates.
Although White inmates made up half of all jail deaths, Black inmates account for 28 percent. That more than twice the share of the Black U.S. population, at 13 percent. The race of 9 percent of dead inmates was not determined.
Even Worse Than It Seems
As bad as the jail inmate death data appears, the reality is even worse. That is because some jails do anything possible to prevent an inmate from becoming an official jail death. For example, some jails make it a practice to release dying inmates, so they are not included in the jail death statistics. Although the term used is “compassionate release,” it is not done solely so that the inmate may die with loved ones present. It also improves the jail’s inmate death rate.
Then there are situations like that of Thomas Harry Brill, 56, who committed suicide while an inmate in Florida’s John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Seminole County. After guards found him hanging in his cell in June 2019 and failed to resuscitate him, Brill was sent to the local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Jail officials said Brill was “released out of our custody,” so his death was not included in the jail’s tally. Brill’s sister said her brother suffered from mental illness and was found in a stolen car and arrested. He could not afford the $500 bail, and languished in jail with no conviction until his suicide.
Some jails simply do not report accurate death rates to government authorities. Reuters found at least 59 deaths in 39 facilities that were not reported to the government or included in official records given to its reporters.
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