Reuters reporters Peter Eisler and Grant Smith recently joined MuckRock to share what they learned building a nationwide database of local jail deaths. Along with Linda So, Jason Szep, Ned Parker, and Brad Heath, they published the series Dying Inside: The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails, the result of their years-long investigations into healthcare and mortality in local jails.
While state prison morality data is often available, there is little out there about jails, the county- and city-run institutions people are brought to when they get arrested and are awaiting trial, explained Eisler. As a result, they are often one of the least transparent components of the criminal justice system.
Reuters’ research spun out of their prior work investigating deaths associated with the use of Tasers (read more background on that investigation here). Reporters found that a substantial number of inmates were dying after being shocked, but exact data was challenging to come by on a national level. They needed the death rates within individual jails to understand how many involved tasers, but found that those rates were unavailable. Very few states require inmate deaths to be reported publicly at the state level.
The federal government does collect the information, with every jail reporting every death to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Reuters requested that data, but it is considered exempt from FOIA and is not available to the public. BJS does release aggregated data on jail deaths at the national level and sometimes at the state level, but no information on which jails the inmates are dying in. So there is no insight into whether deaths are evenly distributed across jails in a given state, or if a particular jail is reporting larger than average numbers.
So Reuters sought out that data themselves. They filed over 1,500 public records requests with jails across the country, and obtained records from over 500 of the nation’s largest. They cleaned and compiled all the data which is available publicly for analysis in the hopes that other reporters could dig into stories that their team did not get to cover.
They compiled the database to identify jails that have outsized death rates, high rates of death due to particular causes such as suicide or addiction, high rates of illness, and whether the jails provide private or public healthcare.
Some of the key data points captured:
7,571 deaths were identified across 523 local jails.
Mortality rate within jails increased 35% between 2009 and 2019.
66% percent of jail deaths were people who died while awaiting trial.
The number of women in jails has increased over the last decade, while the number of men in jails and overall jail populations have decreased. Women inmates tend to be sicker and are dying in increasingly large numbers.
More than a quarter of the deaths analyzed were caused by suicide.
The inmate populations studied had a substantial amount of healthcare needs including mental illness, addiction and other illnesses that jails are not equipped to manage. Reuters found that 62% of top U.S. jails use private healthcare providers, and the death rates at jails using one of the top five private healthcare providers were 18%-58% higher than at jails receiving healthcare from a public agency.
The number of inmates examined plunged by 170,000 during Covid-19 as people were released as a health precaution. This unprecedented decarceration could result in the reassessment of bail reform and other criminal justice policy.
If you are a reporter, these types of requests and the resulting data can help guide you in the examination of jails in your own community. You can find the database here, available as both PDFs and CSV files, and watch the full conversation on YouTube.
Eisler suggested reporters check on their local jail’s record, look at whether its death rate is unusually high or on the rise. Journalists should also look for patterns that might speak to problems at the jail, for example if suicides, drug or alcohol overdoses account for a large percentage of deaths. Other potential story ideas to look into:
- Requesting follow up data to compare death rates before and during the pandemic (In order to publish at the end of last year, Reuters only collected data through about half of 2020).
- How well prepared your local jails are for handling inmates with severe addictions; in many places, withdrawal symptoms were major factors in deaths.
- The increasing number of women inmates dying behind bars and how well equipped jails are to ensure their health and safety, including questions around maternal health.
The reporters offered to make themselves available for local reporters interested in digging into potential follow up stories on prison mortality. Pete Eisler is at Peter.Eisler@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter at @byPeterEisler. Grant Smith is at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @grantmeaccess.
Header image from East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office Handout via Reuters