Report reveals 'shocking long-term gaps in federal oversight' over prison deaths

The Department of Justice’s tally of how many people died while in custody missed hundreds of deaths over the past couple of years, a 10-month U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations probe revealed.

The problems spanned many years over multiple administrations, and committee staffers said there is widespread blame for the oversight. The investigation found that changes to the methods for collecting the data and a transition of the agency within the Justice Department responsible for carrying out the act’s requirements led to the problems.

The Death in Custody Reporting Act, which Congress reauthorized in 2014, requires states to report information to the attorney general every quarter about the death of anyone detained or incarcerated, including details about the cause of death and the person who died.

"DOJ’s failure to implement DCRA has deprived Congress and the American public of information about who is dying in custody and why," the report concluded.

"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 added. "DOJ’s failure to implement this law and to continue to voluntarily publish this information is a missed opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths."

DCRA also required the Department of Justice to issue a report about the findings in December 2016, two years after its passage. However, the PSI investigation revealed that the Justice Department will not complete the report until 2024.

Prisons and jails nationwide hold about 2 million people, and staffers say poor conditions in those facilities often go unnoticed. They say the information could help give insight into the causes of deaths and help develop policies that could reduce the number of deaths.

The Justice Department published reports detailing the number of people who died in custody from 2000 to 2019 and has no plans to publish the information again. PSI staffers said they could not analyze specific states because the Justice Department refused to provide the underlying data to the subcommittee.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office supplied some data to PSI officials.

"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," U.S. Sen. John Ossoff, D-Georgia, chairman of the PSI, said in a statement.

The investigation followed a previous inquiry into U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta. Ossoff has lambasted the Atlanta federal penitentiary as "extremely dangerous and insecure," saying that prison records show staff "acted with impunity and even lacked regard for human life."

The PSI will hold a hearing on uncounted deaths in prisons and jails on Tuesday.

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