It’s been four years since Sandra Bland died inside a Texas jail cell at the age of 28, and the federal government still hasn’t formally counted her death.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics is supposed to track the deaths in jails and prisons throughout the United States. But their reports are falling further and further behind. DOJ’s most recent jail and prison death reports ― Mortality In State Prisons, 2001-2014 and Mortality In Local Jails, 2000-2014 ― were released two and a half years ago in December 2016, when Barack Obama was still president.
An official previously told HuffPost that the final 2015 jail death data would be released in December 2018. Then the official said there had been a further delay and that the numbers were still “awaiting final review” and would be released “as soon as possible.” Then BJS said it hoped to publish the numbers sometime this summer.
“BJS continues efforts to publish the mortality in jails and prisons reports data for 2015 and 2016,” spokeswoman Tannyr Watkins told HuffPost in March. “Staff turnovers have resulted in delays.”
HuffPost’s jail deaths project, which sought to create a database of American jail deaths in the year after Bland’s demise, found that experts agree that suicides ― the most common cause of death inside jails since the turn of the century ― were nearly always preventable. The latest BJS report on 2014 jail deaths found the highest number of suicides in American jails since 2000.
Even when released in a timely fashion, federal jail death statistics aren’t particularly useful. The statistics are aggregated to the state level, which makes it impossible to identify specific jails with particularly concerning death rates.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has released two reports on jail and prison conditions since Trump took office: One report found Alabama state prison conditions unconstitutional and another report focused on Hampton Roads Regional Jail’s violation of inmates’ constitutional rights. HuffPost’s investigation found that Hampton Roads Regional Jail ― where Jamycheal Mitchell died in August 2015 after spending nearly four months in custody over an alleged $5 theft ― was among the nation’s deadliest jails.
In the months since the DOJ report, a Hampton Roads Regional Jail inmate died of suicide, a guard was indicted for choking an inmate unconscious, and another guard pleaded guilty to assaulting an inmate by throwing water at him that the man alleged was tainted with feces. Even as deaths at the facility continue, there hasn’t been much progress on reaching a settlement with the Justice Department.
A number of jail deaths included in HuffPost’s jail deaths project have resulted in significant settlements. Bland’s family settled for $1.9 million. Mitchell’s family settled for $3 million. A lawsuit by the family of a man who died of “profound dehydration” inside a jail run by Trump supporter and former Sheriff David Clarke settled for $6.75 million. An undisclosed settlement was reached in the death of Michael Sabbie, a 35-year-old father of four who died in a privately run jail on the border of Texas and Arkansas after he begged for help and said, “I can’t breathe” as guards assaulted him and placed him in the cell where he died.
None of those deaths has been formally counted by the federal government.