It’s been termed the “hidden epidemic.” People held in jail have generally not been convicted of a crime, yet they die there in substantial numbers. It is a growing problem nationally, and one city newspaper’s investigative reporting examines the issue in Indiana.
Diligent reporting by the Indianapolis Star finds that, as of October 11, 2021, a total of 308 people have died in Indiana county jails since 2010. Most had not had their day in court. That is an average of one death every two weeks for over 11 years.
Suicide was the leading cause of death at 125, followed by 116 cases of natural death. However, this category includes deaths that could have been prevented, such as those caused by drug or alcohol withdrawal. Reporters identified 58 deaths directly involving drugs or alcohol. Forty deaths were deemed accidental, and another 18 were labeled as “other.”
While most deaths occurred in county jails, a few people succumbed in other county-run facilities. A total of 7 deaths also occurred in the Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Center, the Elkhart County Work Release Center and Marion County’s Arrestee Processing Center, the City-County Building, and the now-closed Liberty Hall.
In Indiana, 75 county jails had a death during that period. Only 17 did not. While the two jails in Marion County had a total of 64 deaths, the largest number of fatalities, even jails in small, rural counties had inmate deaths. Wabash County had the highest rate of jail deaths.
Most of the people dying in Indiana county jails had not been convicted. Pre-trial detainees made up 227 of the dead, while 72 had post-conviction status. The latter make up less than one-quarter of the deceased.
The majority were held on non-violent charges, such as drunken driving, drug possession, or theft. Only 123 were considered potentially violent, while 176 were considered non-violent. While some of those considered potentially violent were charged with murder or attempted murder, others in the potentially violent cohort were charged with crimes such as resisting arrest, which are not necessarily violent.
Male deaths totaled 245, while 54 females died in Indiana jails. White inmates made up of 229 of the dead, with Black inmates accounting for 63 deaths. Seven of those inmates were categorized as “other.”
As for age, 97 of the deceased were between the ages of 30 and 39, the largest group; next were 84 inmates between 40 and 49, followed by 49 inmates between the ages of 17 and 29; 46 were between 50 and 59; 23 were 60 and older.
Overcrowded and Understaffed
Almost all of the sheriffs interviewed stated that their facilities were understaffed. By the state of Indiana’s own criteria, 207 of the deaths took place in understaffed or overcrowded facilities, while 64 died in jails considered fully staffed and not overcrowded.
The investigation found that 84 percent of Indiana jails failed to meet minimum safety standards in at least 4 of the past 11 years.
Without swift changes, the problem will only worsen. The last three years saw the greatest number of deaths. While 2021 is not yet over, its death rate will likely match them.