This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer

By Genoa Barrow

The Department of Justice is being called out for a national failure to report information on the number of individuals who die while in custody.

After a 10-month inquiry, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report this week, “Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons & Jails: How the Department of Justice Failed to Implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act.”

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia), who chairs the subcommittee, and ranking member Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) convened a hearing to unveil the bipartisan report, hear witness testimony from impacted families and question the DOJ on the subcommittee’s findings.

“This 10-month bipartisan investigation of deaths in America’s prisons and jails has revealed shocking long-term gaps in federal oversight, including hundreds of uncounted deaths in 2021 alone,” Ossoff said in a statement.

The lack of transparency undermines the duties of the subcommittee to carry out its constitutional oversight responsibilities, Johnson added.

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.

Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report

According to the report, the DOJ in 2021 failed to identify at least 990 prison- and arrest-related deaths. It also said 70% of the data the DOJ collected was incomplete. The report further asserted that the DOJ failed to implement effective data collection methodology despite internal warnings from the inspector-general and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The investigation found that at least 341 missing and potentially reportable prison deaths were disclosed on individual states’ public websites, but were not collected by the bureau. Furthermore, at least 649 missing arrest deaths were reported in a public database maintained by a civil rights nonprofit, but were not collected by the DOJ.

Local community-based organizations such as Decarcerate Sacramento, longtime civil rights champion the NAACP and relatives on the outside have called for transparency and accountability when deaths occur. Activists often cite a lack of accurate information from the county sheriff’s office, which handles the jails. They demand better health care and treatment for incarcerated individuals across the board.

In addition to a failure to report in many instances, the report noted that collected information is incomplete. Approximately 40% of the records for 2021, for example, included no description of the circumstances surrounding the death.

“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,” the report reads. “DOJ’s failure to implement this law and to continue to publish this data is a missed opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths.”

Andrea Armstrong, a Black law professor at Loyola University’s New Orleans College of Law, was among participants in Tuesday’s hearing.

Armstrong has visited and audited jails and prisons across the country and extensively studied Louisiana’s correctional facilities, including its infamous penitentiary Angola.

“She runs a nonprofit organization affiliated with the law school called Incarceration Transparency, where she submits open records requests to every single detention facility in Louisiana, and does an accounting of who is dying and why, in a manner that we would expect the Department of Justice to do itself,” said Dan Eisenberg, senior counsel for the Governmental Affairs Committee Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

There are a lot of reasons to be concerned when a death in custody occurs. In addition to the impact on families and communities, deaths in custody may signal broader challenges in a facility. It is impossible to fix what is invisible and hidden.

Andrea Armstrong, Loyola University’s New Orleans College of Law professor

Armstrong and her students also run incarcerationtransparency.org, which collects, publishes and analyzes deaths in custody in Louisiana prison, jails, and detention centers.

“At the time that we started that project and continuing today, the type of information that we wanted was not available – namely individual level death records, as well as facility-level death records, so that we could identify which facilities in Louisiana were actually the most troubled,” Armstrong told the committee.

“There are a lot of reasons to be concerned when a death in custody occurs. In addition to the impact on families and communities, deaths in custody may signal broader challenges in a facility. It is impossible to fix what is invisible and hidden.”

Armstrong quoted late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

“As Justice Brandeis wrote, ‘Sunlight is the best of disinfectants, electric light, the most efficient policeman.’ Increasing public transparency on deaths in custody is a critical step towards ultimately reducing deaths.”

America, she said, has a “broken system.” Sen. Ossoff agreed.

“What the United States is allowing to happen on our watch in prisons, jails, and detention centers nationwide is a moral disgrace,” he said.

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