Biden Justice Department needs to stop epidemic of prison and jail deaths | The Hill

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023, in Washington.

The 2021 starvation death of Arkansas inmate Larry Price made national news only after his family filed a wrongful death suit. That suit alleged that Price “was allowed to starve to death over a year in pretrial detention due to neglect by jail staff and its private health contractor.”

The Washington Post reported that “By the time Price died alone in a Sebastian County, Ark., jail cell in 2021, he weighed 121 pounds. Autopsy images show his emaciated body, his cheeks sunken, his collarbones and ribs protruding through his skin and his legs wasted away. The soles of his feet were swollen, white and wrinkled from standing inwater in his jail cell.”

As the Post notes, “(P)rison logs… suggest either no one was watching or no one cared as he wasted away, the logs that continued to list him as ‘OK’ — even after he had died.”

Last month, a New York Daily News story recounted the death of Edgardo Mejias in that city’s infamous Rikers Island jail. Mejias, who was incarcerated awaiting trial for shoplifting perfume, died in his cell of an apparent drug overdose.

The Daily News quotes his lawyer who said that Mejias “didn’t feel he was getting proper care. It was very frustrating for him because he was having trouble breathing. He was in a lot of distress.”

The stories of Price and Mejias are part of an epidemic of deaths behind bars in this country. Six detainees died at the Rikers Island jail in 2022, and in other places records were set last year for the number of inmates who died in prisons and jails. Many of them were preventable.

What is unusual about the cases of Price and Mejias is that they made news. Countless other inmates die in this nation’s prisons and jails of unnatural causes, and their deaths rarely make news or raise alarm among officials in charge of running those facilities.

Given long-standing patterns of neglect at the state and local level, addressing the problem of deaths behind bars will require a focused, nationwide effort coordinated by the United States Department of Justice. It must first document the scope of the problem and then incentivize states and localities to act.

The Biden Justice Department needs to make this an urgent priority.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought some attention to the phenomenon of death behind bars, but this problem started long before COVID and continues even as COVID deaths among inmates are no longer making headlines.

In “Death Before Sentencing,” Andrew R. Klein argues that most of this country’s deaths behind bars result from “suicides, untreated drug and alcohol withdrawal, forced restraint and brutality, and general medical malpractice.” 

In September Klein told National Public Radio that “The jailers don’t recognize that jails are, in fact, de facto the largest drug detoxification centers in the country, the largest mental illness facilities in the country. And so these jails require a level of treatment that’s just totally missing. The result is a totally unacceptable death rate across the country in the nation’s jails.”

The need to shine a light on this problem was one reason Congress reauthorized the so-called Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2013 and extended its coverage to include deaths in facilities.

First passed in 2000, that law mandated only “the collection of data on deaths involving law enforcement processing while detained, under arrest, in the process of arrest, or while being transported to incarceration/detention.”

The 2013 reauthorization extended that mandate and required states “to report to the Attorney General information regarding the death of any person who is either; detained, under arrest, in the process of being arrested, en route to be incarcerated, or is incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, state prison, state-run boot camp prison, boot camp prison that is contracted out by the state, any state or local contract facility, or other local or state correctional facility (including any juvenile facility).”

And, most importantly, it authorized the U.S. Attorney General to withhold federal funds from states that did not comply with its reporting requirements.

But since then, attorneys general in several administrations have not enforced the Death in Custody Reporting Act or withheld any funding to secure compliance with it.

So far, neither has Attorney General Merrick Garland.

This was made clear last fall when the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held oversight hearings to focus attention on these longstanding failures.

During the hearings, subcommittee chair Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), unveiled the results of the subcommittee’s own inquiry into the annual death toll in America’s prisons and jails. It identified nearly 1,000 previously undocumented deaths among incarcerated persons across the country.

According to Atlanta’s 11 Alive TV news, in the 2021 Fiscal Year, “990 deaths…were never counted.” And when deaths were reported, the records were often missing crucial information. 11 Alive noted that “40 percent had records that ‘failed to capture the circumstances of death.’”

In testimony before Ossoff’s subcommittee, Maureen Hennenberg, deputy assistant attorney at the Department of Justice, acknowledged that “It’s very concerning that there is the underreporting. And it was widespread across all the states.”

But Ossoff did not let her off the hook.

“Despite a clear charge from Congress,” he said “to determine who is dying in prisons and jails across the country, where they are dying, and why they are dying, the Department of Justice is failing to do so. This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.”

Ossoff rightly called on the Biden Justice Department to fulfill its obligation to enforce the reporting law. He also urged it to use all of the tools at its disposal to prevent deaths in America’s jails and prisons.

“The crisis in America’s prisons, jails and detention centers,” he said, “is ongoing and unconscionable. The Department of Justice and the Congress must treat this as the emergency to constitutional rights that it is.”

Austin Sarat (@ljstprof) is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty” and “Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution.” The views expressed here do not represent Amherst College.


death in custody

Death in Custody Reporting Act

inmate deaths

jail deaths


Joe Biden

Jon Ossoff

Merrick Garland

prison deaths



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