Why Thousands of Jail Inmates Meet a Grim Fate

Reuters takes an in-depth look at jail deaths
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 17, 2020 2:00 PM CDT
Thousands Die in Jail Without Getting to Court
Stock image.   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – Harvey Hill was acting a little crazy that night. The Mississippi man was laughing in the rain outside his former boss' house in May 2018 and wouldn't leave, so he was arrested, charged with trespassing, and tossed in jail—where he started a fight with guards that ended in his death. And he's not alone. In the first article of a series, Reuters reports that 7,571 people died in US jails from 2008 to 2019, at least two thirds of whom never got their day in court. "A lot of people are dying and they've never been sentenced, and that's obviously a huge problem," says a UN specialist on torture and other inhuman punishment, who adds that "you have to provide" two things in all cases: "due process" and "humane detention conditions." For more:

  • Of the 7,571 deaths, over 2,000 killed themselves during mental breakdowns. Most die from illness and sometimes fail to get quality healthcare in jail. More and more of them—over 10% last year—die from alcohol and drugs, partly due to the opioid epidemic. Almost 300 died after sitting in jail unconvicted for at least a year. And the overall death rate is climbing.

  • Jails sometimes appear to fudge the numbers by releasing inmates before they die. After inmate Thomas Harry Brill hanged himself with a bedsheet in 2019, the John E. Polk Correctional Facility in Florida released him and he died at a nearby hospital. Brill "was released out of our custody" before dying, said a sheriff's rep. "Therefore, it would not technically be considered an in-custody death."
  • There are no enforceable federal standards to make sure America's 3,000-plus jails meet health and safety requirements. Just 28 states have set standards in place of national oversight. Understaffed, underequipped, and underfunded, most jails are simply run by local police or county sheriffs.
  • Jail death tolls are usually withheld from the public. Why? To get police and sheriffs to report the data to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. But Reuters says "secrecy has a cost," because policy makers, inmates-rights advocates, and even DOJ lawyers can't act wisely if death rates are kept hidden.
  • "The whole point is we suspect a lot of the deaths are preventable with certain protocols—better suicide protocols, better healthcare, better guard-to-prisoner ratios," says Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat. "You've got to have information at the jail level. You have no way of really targeting corrective action if you don't."
  • As for Hill, his family says the jail initially lied and told them he died of a heart attack. They believe the guards' violence was unjustified and "someone needs to be held responsible," their lawyer says. His ex-boss, who made the 911 call, fought tears when he heard the autopsy finding of homicide: "God Almighty," he said. "Harvey was a friend."
  • Click to read the full article, or see key findings by state.
(Read more jail stories.)

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