October 31st, 2022 • UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project Team
The Federal Government Doesn’t Know How Many People Died in Prison Since the Pandemic Began
At a recent Congressional hearing, Vanessa Fano testified about the death of her brother, Jonathan Louis Fano, who died by suicide five years ago in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana jail. The following is an excerpt from her remarkable testimony:
On October 31, 2016, Baton Rouge police arrested my brother even though he was obviously hallucinating and very mentally ill.[R]ather than take Jonathan to a hospital, police took him to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, which is Baton Rouge’s jail… . My brother, like every other person held in Baton Rouge’s jail, deserved to be treated with basic human dignity. His death highlights the importance of the Death in Custody Reporting Act (“DCRA”) because of the need for transparency in our jails and prisons.
Since my brother’s death, I have learned that Baton Rouge’s jail is one of the deadliest in the country. At least 48 people, including Jonathan, have died in the jail since 2012. Rather than this information being readily available to the public, advocates have had to cobble together the information from both public sources and the media…It is my firm belief that had the information about Baton Rouge’s jail high death rate been publicly available, my family and I would have done everything we could have to secure Jonathan’s release prior to trial.
Fano was invited to testify at the US Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations recent, urgent hearing on “Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons and Jails: How the Department of Justice Failed to Implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act.” As Fano’s testimony makes clear, the opacity of our country’s prisons and jails has tragic consequences.
The bipartisan hearing sounded an alarm, revealing that U.S. lawmakers and citizens lack access to data on the most basic fact about mortality behind bars: how many people die in the country’s jails and prisons in any given year. As Committee Chair Jon Ossoff (D-GA) remarked in his opening statement:
[D]espite a clear charge from Congress to determine who is dying in prisons and jails across the country, where they are dying, and why they are dying, the Department of Justice is failing to do so. This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.
Ranking Member Ron Johnson (R-WI) expressed similar concern:
Proper implementation of DCRA could have provided DOJ, Congress, and the families with information on how inmates died in American prisons and jails and inform potential reforms if necessary. Since 2014, however, DOJ has repeatedly failed to properly implement and carry out its responsibilities under DCRA.
Professor Andrea Armstrong, one of the country’s leading expert on deaths in carceral settings, drove home the point in her testimony during the hearing:
Beyond the significant impact on families, this lack of transparency on deaths in custody undermines our nation’s commitment to public safety. People, both free and incarcerated, are less likely to trust a system that hides vitally important information. It is also impossible to fix what is invisible and hidden.
As the hearing and the Subcommittee’s recently released report highlighted, the federal government has dangerously abdicated its responsibility to document how many people died in the country’s prisons and jails since 2019. Between 2000 and 2019, the DOJ had collected data on deaths in custody and produced annual Mortality in Correctional Institutions reports that provided summary analyses of the collected data. While this did not fully meet its obligations under Congress’ DCRA, it was an important empirical baseline. Beginning in 2020 – just as prisons and jails across the country became the epicenters of COVID outbreaks – the DOJ effectively ceased its publication, and much of its collection, of carceral mortality data, falling even further out of compliance with DCRA.
In its own report to the White House on DCRA implementation submitted prior to the hearing, the Department of Justice (DOJ) wrote: “This underreporting [of deaths in custody] is widespread, and not the result of a small number of lagging or uncooperative states … . [T]he degradation of data quality and completeness, as compared to previously available data collection methods, is considerable.” For the first time since 2000, when the federal government began its (now ceased) reporting, the country is without a national resource for understanding deaths in custody. This reporting failure seriously impedes the public’s ability to know who is dying in prison and why, what racial disparities exist in mortality outcomes, the impacts of the pandemic, and more.
Government oversight bodies prisons and jails rely on the reports formerly produced by the DOJ. Advocacy organizations tracking crises in their communities’ prisons use these reports to situate their fights within a national story. Academic research on topics across the criminal legal system frequently cites these reports. Family members, policymakers, advocates, and journalists are left without data that could and should drive efforts to bring people home from prison, improve conditions behind bars, end preventable deaths, and reduce the country’s overreliance on incarceration.
UCLA Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project began collecting and analyzing data on all-cause mortality in prisons over the past two years. This effort was borne out of concern that the public would lack access to accurate, transparent data showing the full health impact of COVID on people in prison. Relying on state public records laws, our team requested information on each death in custody through 2020; for a few states, like Louisiana and Texas, we have relied on exceptional colleagues who had already collected the data in their states. This fall, the Project will publish the first iteration of our nationwide death-in-prison database. This database will include information on deaths of those confined by 50 state departments of corrections, the federal Bureau of Prisons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It will include demographic data for the prison populations of 28 states, which allows for the study of rates and disparities. For 40 state prison agencies and the BOP, we have collected individual-level data, meaning records that provide a specific date for each death. DOJ’s previous reporting on deaths in custody never included individual-level data, and its inclusion will allow the public to conduct its own analysis. Our data will allow for analysis of the facility, individual, and environmental factors related to higher and lower rates of mortality in custody.
Our team has already begun to employ the data. Using the data we collected, we’ve found that life expectancy dropped much more significantly in the Florida state prison population than in the state’s unincarcerated population during the pandemic, and we’ve also found that Hispanic and Black people in Texas prisons were much more likely than white people in prison to die of COVID. Today, to further demonstrate the sorts of analysis that would be possible if the country had access to quality data on deaths in prisons, we are publishing a preliminary review of deaths in state prisons in Georgia, Senator Ossoff’s home state. Records obtained by our project from the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) show:
- From 2015 to 2020, there were 1,072 deaths recorded in Georgia state prisons. Between 2015 and 2020, the annual number of prison deaths in GDC increased by 97% (from 143 deaths in 2015 to 281 deaths in 2020).
- Between 2015 and 2020, the general circumstance of death with the most recorded deaths was ‘Natural,’ representing 730 deaths, or 68% of all deaths. The second largest general circumstance of death was ‘Suicide,’ representing 103 deaths, or 10% of all deaths. Deaths listed as ‘Natural,’ ‘Suicide,’ and ‘Homicide,’ increased between these years by 136% (an increase of 113 deaths), 314% (22 deaths), and 2,500% (25 deaths), respectively.
- Between 2016 and 2020, deaths increased among all age groups except 0-19. Deaths among individuals 30-39 and 40-49 increased most during this period, by 340% (an increase of 39 deaths) and 176% (40 deaths), respectively.
- The prison facility with the highest recorded number of suicides in 2020 was Georgia State Prison. There were eight suicides at Georgia State Prison in 2020, more than in any of the prior five years. The prison facility with the highest recorded number of homicides in 2020 was Macon State Prison. There were seven homicides at Macon State Prison in 2020, also more than in any of the prior five years.
The Permanent Subcomittee’s investigation and hearing are important steps towards accountability. While we join with the Subcommittee and our colleagues around the country in calling for DOJ to renew and improve its carceral mortality data collection and reporting, our Project’s database publication this fall will help to fill the immediate data gap. As Vanessa Fano’s powerful and courageous testimony reminds us, counting deaths behind bars is the critical first step to preventing them.
Instead of declaring the pandemic over and backing off of the measures that protect our communities, such as testing and publicly reporting COVID data, jails should be sites of increased surveillance and study, where public health techniques like genomic sequencing are prioritized.