U.S. government failed to properly count deaths of people in prisons and jails, Senate report says
An empty prison cell. Getty Images.
WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice did not properly count nearly 1,000 deaths of incarcerated people in jails and prisons, according to a bipartisan report released Tuesday by a U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee.
The 10-month investigation by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, found that DOJ failed to enforce the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which requires states that receive federal funding to report prison and jail deaths to the agency.
States who fail to follow the law can lose up to 10% of their funding for state and local law enforcement agencies under the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program.
“These failures were preventable,” according to the report. “DOJ must act quickly to remedy the outstanding implementation failures, and Congress should continue to monitor DOJ’s implementation efforts.”
The Senate investigations panel is also holding a hearing Tuesday afternoon following the release of the report, where two witnesses whose family members died in custody in Georgia and Louisiana are set to testify.
Lack of reporting
From 2000-2019, the Bureau of Justice Statistics collected and made public information about deaths in custody that was provided to DOJ, and then the agency would inform Congress of its data. But DOJ then transferred that task to its Bureau of Justice Assistance, which began collecting data in fiscal 2020.
Since the transfer, DOJ has not reported the data that BJA has collected, according to the report.
The subcommittee noted in its report that the agency was not fully cooperating with the panel’s investigation and “DOJ’s resistance to bipartisan Congressional oversight impeded Congress’ ability to understand whether DCRA 2013 had been properly implemented, delaying potential reforms that could restore the integrity of this critical program.”
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“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,” according to the report.
In fiscal 2021, the report found that DOJ “failed to identify at least 990 prison and arrest related deaths; and 70% of the data DOJ collected was incomplete.” Of those deaths, 341 were prison deaths disclosed on the states’ public websites and 649 were arrest-related deaths disclosed in a reliable, public database, according to the report.
The report found that the Justice Department did not properly manage the data collection transfer from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
“BJA’s failure to properly collect and report on custodial death data stands in marked contrast to BJS’s successful efforts to do these same things for 20 years,” according to the report.
The report also found that for fiscal 2021, a majority of the death in custody information from BJA was incomplete.
About 70% of the records on death in custody were missing at least one data field as required by the reporting law, and about 40% of the “records did not include a description of the circumstances surrounding the death.”
Louisiana, Georgia witnesses
One of the witnesses set to testify before the Senate on Tuesday, Vanessa Fano, is the sister of Jonathan Fano, who died in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Louisiana.
The other witness, Belinda L. Maley, is the mother of Matthew Loflin, who died in the Chatham County Detention Center in Georgia.
Additionally, Andrea Armstrong, a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law who studies prison and jail conditions, will testify.
Later on, senators will question Maureen Henneberg, the deputy assistant attorney general for operations and management in the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, and Gretta L. Goodwin, the director of homeland security and justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
This hearing also builds upon a July hearing where witnesses detailed years of abuse at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta, where inmates were routinely denied nutrition, clean drinking water, hygiene products and proper medical care.
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