Government Can’t Say How Many People Die in U.S. Jails and Prisons

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Mar 16, 2022

Far too many preventable deaths occur in the United States’ sprawling system of mass incarceration. Individual horror stories have long shown a clear need for more oversight of how people are treated during arrests and stays in jails and prisons.

Two decades ago, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA). This law requires states to report information about the number of people who died in local or state correctional facilities or while being arrested. But DCRA has never been properly implemented, which has resulted in spotty, inadequate data.

Simply put, the federal government does not know how many people die in U.S. jails and prisons each year. On Freedom of Information Day, it’s important to recognize how this lack of transparent data hurts efforts to end mass incarceration and improve conditions for those trapped within the system.

The DCRA was supposed to help develop solutions to avoid deaths in custody. According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), “Knowing the circumstances and number of fatalities are crucial to developing policies and program changes that could reduce the number of in-custody fatalities.”

But fully implementing DCRA has not been a priority for the federal government, especially in the past five years, and BJA has been left to rely on correctional facilities and law enforcement agencies to provide in-custody deaths data voluntarily. This has resulted in wholly inadequate reporting, with states collecting flawed data based solely on media reports or unverified information provided by law enforcement agencies. Some states didn’t provide BJA any data at all, with no consequences.

The limited data provided to BJA suggested that mortality in state prisons was rising. In 2018, the number of deaths (4,135) and the mortality rate (344 deaths per 100,000 incarcerated people) in state prisons were the highest they had been since the federal government started collecting mortality data in 2001.

This was no time to stop collecting data for the Mortality in Correctional Institutions program, but last March, that’s exactly what happened. This backward step, and the federal government’s decades-long refusal to properly implement DCRA, points to a greater problem. In the United States, people who are in police custody and in jails and prisons are dehumanized and devalued. The lack of urgency around data collection for in-custody deaths sends a clear message: the safety of incarcerated people and people who are in police custody is simply not a federal priority.

Although the law gave the federal government the power to levy financial penalties against states that failed to report data required by DCRA, there is no evidence this was ever done. As the data collection status for the Mortality in Correctional Institutions remains inactive, people continue to suffer and die in U.S. jails and prisons.

People who have not been convicted of crimes are losing their lives while awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture has expressed concern about reports of deaths caused by extreme heat in unbearably hot and poorly ventilated prisons in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Texas.

People with mental health conditions are losing their lives in prisons where symptoms of mental illness are met with brutal punishment instead of treatment.

The United States has the largest carceral system in the world and far too much of it operates in shadows. We can’t solve the problem of in-custody deaths unless we can shed light on it. Adequate data can help advocates and lawmakers save lives.