3 Years Later, The Federal Government Still Hasn’t Counted Sandra Bland’s Death

Justice Department data on American jail deaths is getting even more useless.
Shutterstock / sakhorn

WASHINGTON ― Three years after the death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland highlighted jail deaths in the United States, the federal government still hasn’t formally counted her death nor the hundreds of other fatalities that occurred in American jails in 2015.

The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has been counting jail deaths since 2000 and had been releasing jail death data on a yearly basis since 2011. But the office hasn’t done so since December 2016 ― just before President Donald Trump took office ― when the bureau published the final jail death numbers from 2014.

Now, halfway through 2018, a BJS official tells HuffPost that the government doesn’t plan to release new final 2015 data until December 2018.

The last report found that more people ― 372 ― committed suicide in jail in 2014 than in any year since 2000 and that American jails in 2014 had the highest suicide rate on record. It also found that more inmates ― 1,053 ― died in jail in 2014 than in any year since 2007 and that American jails had their highest mortality rate since 2007.

Preliminary 2015 data released at the same time indicated the jail death numbers in the year Bland died may be equally disturbing. BJS’ incomplete data for 2015 ― based on reports from 97 percent of jails ― listed 1,069 jail deaths, including 364 suicides. That would make 2015 one of the deadliest years on record, with the highest number of jail deaths since at least 2007 and (besides 2014) the highest number of suicides on record.

HuffPost’s jail deaths project, published two years ago, aimed at counting deaths that occurred in American jails in the year following Bland’s July 13, 2015 death. As part of the project, HuffPost identified 15 facilities with a death rate of more than double the national average. Some experts say if a jail has an unusually high death rate, it can be an indication of lax oversight and the need for reform. Several of the facilities identified as part of HuffPost’s analysis came under public scrutiny, and others brought in corrections experts for advice on anti-suicide measures.

While the reports might indicate that deaths or suicides were up nationwide or in a certain state, the federal data doesn’t make it possible to identify individual jails that may have a problem.

Still, the BJS jail death data can help identify trends in jail deaths and spikes in particular states. Jail suicides, which are largely preventable, have been the leading cause of death in jail in every year since 2000.

Erik Heipt, an attorney involved in several prominent jail death cases, said that delay in the jail death data was “particularly alarming at a time when more and more county governments are turning to for-profit corporations” to run jails or administer correctional healthcare, which could incentivize cost-cutting practices that could lead to deaths.

“Knowing how many people die in jail, where the deaths occur, and what caused them is vital to understanding and addressing the problem,” Heipt said.

“In most jurisdictions, private corporations are not subject to public records requests—even when they perform a purely public function, such as running a jail. Thus, without governmental data, the public has no reliable access to information concerning jail mortality,” he added. “Americans are already kept in the dark about jail-related atrocities. We need more data, not less. Falling further behind on public reporting is falling further in the wrong direction. It’s unacceptable.”

Explaining the delay, a DOJ official said that compiling and verifying the data is an arduous process and that certain circumstances are out of its hands.

“Collecting, compiling and verifying mortality data from roughly 3,000 jails and 50 state departments of corrections is a time-consuming and complex process, dependent in some cases on activities that are out of BJS’s control. For example, BJS allows coroners and medical examiners time to complete their investigations and finalize causes of death,” Tannyr Watkins, a spokeswoman with DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, told HuffPost. “The amount of effort that goes into validating survey responses and analyzing data from so many sources makes it difficult to follow a predictable schedule.”

But the delay in final jail death statistics comes as the Justice Department appears to be pulling back from already very limited oversight of the nation’s jails. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Civil Rights Division has backed off so-called “pattern-or-practice” investigations that look at whether officials are systematically violating the rights of inmates.

One example: The Hampton Roads Regional Jail in southeast Virginia, a facility HuffPost identified as having more than double the national average death rate. Hampton Roads came under statewide scrutiny after the 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24-year-old Portsmouth, Va., man who was arrested after stealing $5.05 worth of snacks. Mitchell, who had mental health issues, lost 36 pounds in his four months in jail and died of “wasting syndrome” and heart problems.

“Americans are already kept in the dark about jail-related atrocities. We need more data, not less.”

- Erik Heipt, an attorney involved in several prominent jail death cases,

Mitchell’s wasn’t the only troubling death at Hampton Roads. HuffPost’s investigation uncovered previously unreported incidents in the facility. Mark Goodrum, a stroke victim, died in November 2015 after spending a month behind bars in connection with a prior citation for marijuana possession. He was only incarcerated because he couldn’t come up with $100 to secure his release.

The DOJ announced a federal civil rights probe into Hampton Roads Regional Jail in December 2016, but it hasn’t offered any updates since. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment to HuffPost on the current status of the investigation.

Meanwhile, troubling deaths haven’t ended. Davageah Jones, an 18-year-old arrested on charges of breaking and entering and marijuana possession, died in the facility in May. The facility has had five different superintendents in less than two years.

Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at ryan.reilly@huffpost.com or on Signal at 202-527-9261.

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