The Black Hole of Jail Deaths
August 24, 2021
Solitary confinement cells in SAC jail.
Last week, reporter Jason Pohl addresses the problem of jail deaths in Sacramento County jails, where the sheriff’s office does not appear to investigate or even release information about what happened. This year alone six men have died; the sheriff’s office has only released information on one individual. Yet, Sheriff Scott Jones (an avowed anti-masker) has refused to comply with best practices and release information to the public.
People die in jail with frightening regularity – so often that this particular post cannot do justice to the many lives that have been lost. Causes of death include overdoses, unmedicated withdrawal, medical neglect, assaults by staff or other incarcerated people, excessive violence, and the use of violent strategies by staff like chokeholds, restraint chairs, and spit hoods, and suicides. (People also die because of accidents, usually ones that happen while on work release, which will be the subject of another post.)
As long as jails have been around, people have died in them. The author of a 1933 treatise on rural law enforcement described sheriff-run jails as “an offense to public decency…men, women and children…are herded in with gamblers, prostitutes, hoboes and misdemeanants generally.” Another official from the late 19th century described jails are “moral squalor,” emphasizing the sense not just that jails were dirty and unsanitary – they were – but also that they were places where the regular rules of society did not apply. (This idea that jails are both physically and morally “dirty” is still present today in terms of ignoring jail conditions, preventing the public from entering jails, and treating the people inside jails as uniquely unworthy.)
Jails, unlike prisons, were always intended to be temporary places to house people that no one wanted to deal with. They held, sometimes, people who owed fines but were accused of no other crime as well as people who would shortly be sent out to work as part of the convict leasing system. Whereas the creators of places like Auburn Correctional or Eastern State Penitentiary envisioned a system whereby people would cleanse themselves of impurities through work and contemplation (a problem in and of itself), people held in jails have always lived in congregate settings. For sheriffs, they were mostly a hassle, which is why they were so eager to participate in convict leasing, which involved not just agricultural industries, but also mining, manufacturing, and turpentine collection. Some politicians may talk about the redemptive power of work, but the conditions incarcerated people endured were so terrible that running away or amputating a limb was common. In Los Angeles, for example, people held in the jail – usually for the crime of being a so-called “tramp” – worked on a chain gang to build a new jail.
Today, if you ask sheriffs, jails are a huge burden precisely because people die in there so often, and, if they don’t die, they are at huge risk of contracting COVID or getting seriously injured without proper and prompt medical care. It’s also difficult and expensive to hire enough deputies to work in the jail; harder still when the jail is unclean and unhealthy. Often, new deputies are assigned to the jail regardless of preference, which means jails are staffed by undertrained new recruits who are eager to get out of there. The National Sheriff Association describes jails, which are 85% sheriff-run, as “the most litigious and largest liability concern a sheriff faces.”
Last year, Reuters did a multi-part investigation into jail deaths nationwide and found around 1,000 a year. Their database is likely a slight undercount – there are no national requirements to record jail deaths nor is there universal agreement on what, exactly, a jail death is. (Many counties routinely release extremely ill or dying people and send them directly to the county hospital, where they die. While they are not in custody at the time of their death, they effectively should count as jail deaths, but do not.)
Most scholars, legislators, and advocates have focused on documenting death in jails in order to better determine how often and why they are happening. Eyal Press wrote a wonderful article about Loyola law professor Angela Armstrong, who created a dashboard for all Louisiana jail deaths (that she can locate) and has testified before about the abysmal medical care for those in jails.
There are several reasons why jails have such high deaths. Most sheriffs and jailers argue that deaths are a symptom of the populations most frequently incarcerated, which is supported by evidence that incarcerated people generally are more likely to have chronic health problems that require attentive care. Taking their argument in good faith, they say that the people like to be jailed are also likely not to have had preventative medical care, nor the insurance or cash to pay for such care.
Certainly, one aspect of jail deaths is the state of medical care inside jails. Today, most sheriffs have privatized medical care by contracting with large, private companies who are responsible for hiring and training medical staff. People incarcerated within jail have little choice about how and when to access care, and no choice at all when it comes to practitioners. Usually, requests for medical care are done through notes to jail staff, which then prompt some sort of action. This is, of course, imperfect. Notes get “lost,” or the individual in need of care is too sick to ask for it.
Sheriff’s deputies, who act as jailers, are not trained to be medical caretakers and generally do not recognize (nor are they trained) to see symptoms as a sign for immediate medical action. Jailers who get any training are taught to expect “malingering,” the word for faking symptoms to get medical care or other special treatment. Science argues that malingering is pretty rare, but ask anyone who works in corrections, and they will say that they think it happens regularly. Alleged malingering can lead to the loss of privileges, but myths about its prevalence also cause deputies inside jails to ignore the vast majority of medical complaints.
Another major problem is that sheriffs and other law enforcement officials treat deaths in custody as immediate liabilities, which prompts secrecy and a plodding pace rather than empathy and open access to information. It is not in the interest of the sheriff to release information about deaths in custody; furthermore, the people who investigate such deaths and make determinations as to the cause of death are forensic pathologists, medical examiners, and coroners, all of whom work for law enforcement and are more likely to confirm their version of the story. In some counties, sheriffs are also coroners, which causes additional conflicts of interest. Usually, the forensic pathologist or ME does the examination or autopsy, while the coroner is tasked with deciding whether the death was natural, suicide or homicide. Deaths from medical neglect are often categorized as “natural,” because there is no official cause of death to determine this issue.
Plus, there are additional complications. If someone dies from COVID-19, law enforcement is likely to blame the victims for failing to take precautions – like masking or social distancing – rather than blame the institution for making these precautions fiction.
If someone dies of an alleged overdose, the immediate response is to blame the victim for ingesting the substance rather than examine how such a substance got into the jail in the first place. (Often sheriffs and jailers are extremely circumspect about alleged overdose deaths because they do not want to admit that people had access to heroin or other illegal drugs in jail. This leads sheriffs to make false and medically impossible claims.
Deaths by alleged suicide, which are more common in jails than prisons, also became a cause for individual blame, with sheriffs arguing that victims caused their own death and blaming family members for not knowing or understanding their own loved one’s mental state.
It’s easier to blame individuals for their own injuries or death; it also shifts liability away from the jailer. But, this blame-shifting is not only disingenuous – surely the jailer has some responsibility for the conditions inside the jail – it is also cruel to the families of those who have died. Take Deyyj Watts (as covered by Jason Pohl), who died in the Sacramento jail in February of this year from what seems to be a pulmonary embolism. His wife tried to call someone to see if Watts had received his medication. No one even bothered to pick up the phone for her. His mother said:
“The people that are incarcerated tend to have no name, no face, no power,” she said. “But I did expect the sheriff’s department to reach out and give us information freely, without us having to beg and plead for it and still not get it.”
While changes in terms of transparency and tracking deaths are vital to measuring the scope of the problem, it’s more important – I would argue – that the families of those who have died inside jail facilities receive better consideration than they have been getting, a consideration that does not rely upon their ability to pay for an attorney to sue on their behalf. They deserve a full hearing. They deserve information. And they deserve to be afforded dignity in the process of grieving.