The Department of Justice is facing bipartisan criticism from U.S. senators for its lack of transparency in reporting deaths of incarcerated persons throughout the United States, according to the Oakland Post.
Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), members of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations issued a report called “Uncounted Deaths in America’s Prisons and Jails: How the Department of Justice Failed to Implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act” in September 2022 after a 10-month inquiry.
In an interview, Sen. Ossoff told the Oakland Post: “This 10-month bipartisan investigation of deaths in American prisons and jails has revealed shocking, long-term gaps in federal oversight, including hundreds of uncounted deaths in 2021 alone.”
According to the report, the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 (DCRA 2013) is a reauthorization of a similar law implemented in 2000 that “requires states that accept certain federal funding to report to the Department of Justice about who is dying in prisons and jails.”
When a custodial death occurs, the 2013 bill requires that each state in which a death occurs provides “at a minimum” the DOJ with the person’s name, gender, race, ethnicity and age. It must also provide the date, time and location of the death, plus a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death.
The report stated that the Subcommittee discovered that the “DOJ will be at least eight years past-due in providing Congress with the DCRA 2013-required 2016 report on how custodial deaths can be reduced.”
According to the report there were approximately 990 prison and arrest-related deaths that went unreported by the DOJ in 2021; and “70% of the data DOJ collected was incomplete.” Furthermore, despite internal warnings from the DOJ Office of the Inspector General and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the report stated that the DOJ’s failures were preventable if they would have implemented effective data collection methodology.
The report also found that out of the 990 uncounted deaths, approximately 341 were prison deaths disclosed on states’ public websites.
Also, about 649 were arrest-related deaths that were disclosed in a reliable, public database kept by a non-profit focused on civil rights, though none of the above data was collected by the DOJ.
Co-sponsors of the bill, which passed with bipartisan support in both branches of Congress back in 2000 and 2013, described the critical importance of collecting death data as something that would bring a “new level of accountability to our Nation’s correctional institutions”; “provide openness in government”; “bolster public confidence and trust in our judicial system”; and “bring additional transparency.”
According to the Oakland Post, relatives of incarcerated persons, along with local community organizations and the NAACP have been demanding “transparency and accountability” when people die in custody.
They have accused the local county sheriff’s office, which oversee the county jails, of not maintaining accurate information regarding in-custody deaths.
They have also demanded that health care and treatment of incarcerated people be improved over-all.
Activists also cite the failure of the sheriff’s office to produce complete information pertaining to in-custody deaths. The Oakland Post r eports t hat i n 2 021 a t least 40% of the deaths that occurred lack detailed descriptions of why the death happened.
“This information is critical to improve transparency in prison and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action—such as failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health services, or safeguard prisoners from violence—and identifying specific facilities with outlying death rates,” read the report.” ”DOJ’s failure to implement this law and to continue to publish this data is a missed opportunity to prevent avoidable deaths.”