The lack of basic information around prison and jail deaths is getting new attention from government officials who have the power to fix it—and to save lives as deaths in custody surge in Pennsylvania and the nation.
This week, a U.S. Senate subcommittee reported the results of an investigation that found that the Department of Justice is massively undercounting the number of people who die in prisons and jails and at the hands of law enforcement nationwide, data it is required to report under the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA). Last year alone, at least 341 deaths in prisons and jails were left out of official federal counts. The DOJ admitted it could be failing to count about 40% of deaths behind bars.
“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,” the Senate report concluded. “DOJ’s failure to implement this law and to continue to voluntarily publish this information is a missed opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths.”
As the Prison Society has noted in the past, the blame doesn’t lie solely with the federal government. In Pennsylvania, county jails routinely fail to report deaths in custody to state and federal authorities.
❝Amazon puts more investment [into] and does more to track the status of consumer goods than Pennsylvania or quite frankly the federal government puts into tracking whether people in government custody live or die.❞
– Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards, PennLive, February 2022
Jails often don’t report incarcerated people who died after being transferred to local hospitals, claiming, contrary to the requirements of the DCRA, that these do not count as deaths in custody. One of them was Ishmail Thompson, who was pepper sprayed, covered with a spit hood, and forced into a restraint chair while suffering a mental health crisis in Dauphin County Prison. For its part, the state government has not come up with a way to hold counties accountable for reporting deaths in jail.
In response to the Senate investigation, the DOJ proposed changes to the DCRA that would enable it to collect data directly from local governments and penalize correctional agencies that don’t comply.
Allegheny County Executive lobbies for statewide fatality reviews
As the U.S. Senate draws attention to unreported deaths in custody, new details have emerged about a proposal to increase transparency in Pennsylvania. Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is working with state legislators to create statewide teams of “medical, correctional, and judicial professionals” to review fatalities in Pennsylvania county jails. He introduced the idea when the county announced it was arranging for an independent review of fatalities in the Allegheny County Jail.
While Fitzgerald's action is delayed—it comes after more than a year of local advocates speaking publicly about the surge of deaths inside the Allegheny County Jail—it is welcome. Ishmail Thompson’s death in Dauphin County Prison highlighted how jails withhold crucial information from the public about the circumstances that lead to deaths in custody, including the use of force by corrections officers. Conducting independent reviews of jail deaths could help jails address conditions that contribute to preventable deaths. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette argued in a recent editorial, Fitzgerald’s proposal could also be an opportunity to create a new mechanism for ensuring that jails report all deaths in custody to the state, addressing the undercounting problem highlighted by the Senate this week.
The Prison Society has long advocated for more transparency around deaths in custody. We are glad to see local and federal officials beginning to hear our call to bring unsafe prison conditions to light—work that will ultimately save lives.