Why Are so Many People Dying in US Prisons and Jails?

By Michael Sainaeto, The Guardian

On 10 July 2015, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for what she was told by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia was failing to use her turn signal.

A demonstrator holds a Sandra Bland sign during a vigil in Chicago, Illinois, on 28 July 2015. Photograph: Christian K. Lee/AP

A demonstrator holds a Sandra Bland sign during a vigil in Chicago, Illinois, on 28 July 2015. Photograph: Christian K. Lee/AP

Three days after Bland’s arrest, she was found dead in her jail cell. The death was ruled a suicide but remains shrouded in mystery over how a wrongful arrest stemming from a minor traffic violation resulted in death.

“She was arrested and alleged to have put this officer’s life and safety in jeopardy. Really what happened is he didn’t like that his authority was questioned,” attorney Cannon Lambert, who represented Bland’s family, told the Guardian.

For many campaigners Bland’s death in custody, one of the most famous in recent years, demonstrates the widespread reforms needed in the criminal justice system, including tackling racial profiling by police, ending prohibitive bail sums, remedying the lack of mental healthcare, adequate supervision and resources for prisoners in custody, and the need to reduce mass incarceration. It also highlights the fact that these circumstances have led to an epidemic of deaths in America’s prisons and jails.

Surges in the number of Americans dying while incarcerated have occurred against a backdrop of an increase in the US prison population by 500% over the last 40 years. Based on the latest national figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4,980 prisoners in US correctional facilities died in 2014, a nearly 3% increase from 2013. In state prisons, the mortality ratewas 275 for every 100,000 people, the highest since data collection began in 2001.

Since 2014, a Guardian investigation has found several states, including Texas and Florida, with the first and third highest prison populations in the US, respectively, have reported either record mortality rates in prisons or jails or significant surges. Today, 2.3 million people are currently imprisoned, a proportion of the population that substantially outpaces every other nation in the world.

While the majority of deaths in prison are due to natural causes from an ageing prison population, there have also been significant rises in mortality rates due to suicides, homicides, accidents, drug and alcohol-related events, and untreated medical issues.

In Utah, at least 71 people died in jail over the past five years, with half those deaths a result of suicide and most within a week of an individual entering jail. The state’s jails have the highest death rate per capita in the US.

In August 2018, 16 deaths in Mississippi jails in a single month prompted an FBI investigation.

In California, a US supreme court order to reduce the state’s prison population resulted in prisoners being transferred to county jails. Unequipped to handle the influx, those prisons have experienced spikes in homicides.

Prisoners in Michigan are dying at the state’s highest rate in decades and 2018 saw the most prison fatalities in the state since at least 1994, though prison deaths are not consistently tracked by the state.

Texas, with the highest prison population in the US, has seen a 20-year highin prison suicides and 2018 was the state’s highest number of in custody prison deaths since at least 2005.

record number of prisoners committed suicide in South Carolina in 2018 as homicides within the state prison system are on the rise.

Concerns over the surges in prison deaths across the US are part of a nationwide trend.

2017 report published by the Rand Corporation on identifying the needs to reduce prison mortality rates suggested several high-priority needs to reduce prison mortality rates.

“A national medical examiner system should be implemented because of the additional rigor these professionals have and more consistency with how they do investigations and classify cause of death,” said Joe Russo, the lead author of the report, in an interview.

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