Justice Department Failed to Report Nearly 1,000 Deaths in State and Local Prisons: Senate Committee
An external view of the Northern State Prison in Newark, New Jersey is seen on January 18, 2021. - Federal prisons across the United States have been placed under temporary lockdown ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration which takes place on January 20, 2021. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP) (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

By Katabella Roberts

A probe by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the Government Accountability Office has found that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is failing to adequately and efficiently collect data about deaths in state prisons and local jails and that the true number of deaths is likely much higher.

The report (pdf), a culmination of a 10-month investigation, focused on whether the DOJ has complied with the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) of 2013.

That act requires that state and federal law enforcement report to the U.S. Attorney General any deaths of individuals that occur while the individuals are detained, under arrest, in the process of being arrested, en route to prison, or incarcerated at any correctional facility, including contract facilities.

The Attorney General must then study the information and report on ways in which it can be used to reduce the number of such deaths. Under DCRA, states that fail to submit the necessary data may be subject to penalties.

Approximately 1.5 million people are incarcerated in state and local correctional facilities throughout the United States, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Senate report alleges that the DOJ is “failing to effectively implement” DCRA and that the “DOJ’s failed implementation” of the law “undermined the effective, comprehensive, and accurate collection of custodial death data.”

An inmate reads a book while in the infirmary at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, Calif., on April 22, 2020. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

Incomplete Data, Preventable Failures

Specifically, it alleges that in fiscal year 2021 alone, the DOJ failed to identify at least 990 prison and arrest-related deaths, while 70 percent of the data collected by the DOJ was incomplete.

“DOJ failed to implement effective data collection methodology, despite internal warnings from the DOJ Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS),” the report states. “DOJ’s failures were preventable,” it adds.

“Of the 990 uncounted deaths, 341 were prison deaths disclosed on states’ public websites and 649 were arrest-related deaths disclosed in a reliable, public database,” the subcommittee said.

The report further states for that same year, the “vast majority of death in custody information that the Bureau of Justice Assistance collected from the states was incomplete.”

Specifically, 70 percent of records on deaths in custody were “missing at least one DCRA 2013-required data field” while approximately 40 percent of the records “did not include a description of the circumstances surrounding the death.” A further 32 percent of the records lacked more than one DCRA 2013- required data field,” the study states.

DCRA was originally passed in 2000 but reauthorized by Congress in 2013, and the newer version states that the Justice Department must submit to Congress a report on how deaths inside local prisons and jails can be prevented.

The Senate report states that the DOJ failed to hand over the mandated report, which was due at the end of 2016, and will not do so until 2024, making it eight years overdue.

The DOJ also has no plans to make public any further state and local death information, the report states.

‘Critical to Improving Transparency in Prisons’

“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 improving 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.”

Senate hearing was held on the matter on Tuesday, during which Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), who led the probe, said the DOJ’s failure “undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.”

It is not clear if the DOJ will face any consequences for failing to comply with reporting mandate.

The DOJ itself conceded in a recent report (pdf) that it had failed to count some deaths in state prisons and pledged to continue administering DCRA “with an emphasis on providing technical support, resources, and assistance to improve state reporting.”

However, the report also noted that a change to the law in 2013 had “several unintended consequences that have degraded and hindered the Department’s ability to produce complete and accurate information.”

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