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To understand death behind bars, we need more information


Billionaire Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent suicide while in custody at the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center—a ruling that has recently been called into question with the emergence of new autopsy results commissioned by Epstein’s brother. A flurry of media attention has followed this incident, with nearly every national outlet publishing at least one story examining the mysterious circumstances of Epstein’s death and the problem of suicide behind bars.

Unfortunately, these stories were incomplete. While experts did much to explain why and how such deaths occur, we were unable to answer one fundamental question: how many people are dying by suicide in prisons and jails today? No one really knows—and despite a law mandating its dissemination, these data are no longer being released.

In 2000, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, later re-authorized and slightly expanded with the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA) of 2013. This DCRA required all prisons and jails to provide information about deaths that occur while individuals are incarcerated in prison or jail or en route to these facilities. The goals of the law were twofold: First, it allowed the attorney general’s office to study deaths in custody and make recommendations to reduce them. And second, it ensured that the public would be informed about the characteristics and trends of inmate fatalities, including suicide.

The Death in Custody Reporting Program, now known as the Mortality in Correctional Institutions (MCI) reports, were crucial to our understanding of suicides in correctional facilities. The only resource in the nation that provided detailed data for both prisons and jails, the reports included the number of deaths in custody each year, mortality rates broken down by type of death, and the race/ethnicity, age and sex of the deceased.

Lawmakers, correctional administrators, public policy advocates, and researchers all benefited from this information. Government officials could compare the number of deaths in their facilities or correctional systems to national averages and use what they learned to push for improvements at the local and state level. Advocates were able to review the reports and sound the alarm if any particular types of death, by suicide or any other means, increased. Researchers could examine the data to learn more about the types of facilities where suicides are more likely to occur and types of individuals who are more prone to death in custody.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics started publishing reports with this information in the early 2000s and continued to release reports every year through 2016 (with the latest including mortality data from 2014). Then, the reports abruptly stopped. In 2016, I started to work on a book about prison and jail suicide. Starting in 2017, I contacted the Bureau of Justice Statistics multiple times inquiring when the next report would be published. Each time, I was told that the report would be forthcoming in about four to six months. Months and years went by, and still no reports materialized. Members of the research community and criminal justice watchdogs became concerned, but what takes place behind the walls of correctional facilities often remains hidden from the public eye.

Then Jeffrey Epstein died. People interested in the story wanted to put Epstein’s death into context. How often does something like this happen? Every expert that was asked that question had to respond that we really don’t know, because the reports are no longer being published.

The lack of transparency in prison and jail mortality data is just one of several related problems with justice system data collection and dissemination that have surfaced over the past three years. Early in the tenure of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, the DOJ released federal crime statistics reports with 70 percent fewer data tables than what was previously reported by the government. Due to public pressure from the media, academia and public policy groups, most of those tables have since been restored. The Office of the Inspector General released a report in December 2018 stating that, despite a federal law requiring reporting of arrest-fatality data, a number of federal law enforcement agencies have not submitted their statistics. Moreover, as of that time, the DOJ had no plan to issue the mandatory report to Congress.

For years, there was little public attention paid to the problem of suicide behind bars—until Jeffrey Epstein’s death. Suddenly, people interested in the story needed expert data and commentary to put Epstein’s death into context. The public wanted to know how often these sorts of deaths were taking place. But experts could not answer, because the MCI reports were not available. 

Incarcerated people possess little visibility or political capital, and data on deaths behind bars can help shine a spotlight on a problem that may otherwise go ignored. The federal government passed laws requiring that this information be collected, analyzed, and shared as a matter of public good—but it has lately failed to follow through on this imperative.

The recent public attention on suicide in custody will not last forever, and we must seize this moment to demand the release of these vitally needed data. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Christine Tartaro is a Professor of Criminal Justice at Stockton University, and the author of Suicide and Self-Harm in Prisons and Jails.

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