October 24, 2020
This year, the Trump administration got back into the business of federal executions. After a near total pause over the last 17 years - only three federal executions during that period - the federal government has carried out seven executions since July 14.
Since 2008 there have been 412 executions in this country, all but the last seven were carried out by individual states, most notably Texas. However, the execution chamber is not the most lethal place for American prisoners - that distinction goes to America’s local jails.
According to a recent investigation by Reuters, 7,571 inmates have died in local jails since 2008.
Every year, about 11 million people funnel through local jails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, between 1970 and 2017, the number of people incarcerated in the nation’s 3,000-plus local jails ballooned - from 150,000 to about 720,000 per day.
Some inmates in local jails are serving short sentences, often for minor offenses that did not land them in a state prison. However, most local inmates are awaiting trial. They have not been convicted. They have not been sentenced.
As revealed by the Reuters investigation, most of the prisoners who lost their lives succumbed to illness, due in part to the low quality of healthcare. The U.S. Supreme Court, through the Eighth Amendment, has addressed the failure of jails and prisons to meet prisoners’ serious medical or mental health needs, but the deaths continue.
More than 2,000 of those inmates took their own lives, often the result of inadequate or nonexistent mental health treatment. The U.S. Department of Justice released a report in 2017 that found between 2006 to 2016 suicide was the leading cause of death for inmates in local jails.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) suicides were responsible for 31% of deaths in local jails. Heart disease was the second-leading cause of death for jail inmates. That report also found that about 40% of inmate deaths in 2016 occurred within the first seven days of admission to jail.
Incarcerated people are five times more likely than the general population to have a serious mental illness and two out of three have a substance abuse disorder. According to BJS, prisoners are also more likely to have had chronic health conditions and infectious diseases. Moreover, many people experience serious medical and mental health crises after they are placed into jail.
Local jails are funded by local tax dollars and the resources are scarce. Programming for inmates in local jails is nearly nonexistent. Training for jail personnel is often impacted by local economic conditions. Healthcare is marginal at best. A lack of money, treatment and training is a lethal combination.
Reuters examined the mortality rate at more than 500 U.S. jails to put together their investigation. Death rates have soared in local jails, rising 35% during the decade ending last year. At least two-thirds of the deceased inmates identified by Reuters - 4,998 people - were never convicted of the charges for which they were being held.
Homicide is also a problem in local jails.
The problem is multifaceted. Inadequate personnel and supervision puts staff and inmates at risk. Reuters found that, at times, local officials report deaths inaccurately, listing homicides or suicides as accidents or illnesses.
Some jails find other ways to keep deaths off the books, according to the investigation, such as “releasing” inmates who have been hospitalized in grave condition, perhaps from a suicide attempt or a medical crisis, so they’re not on the jail’s roster when they die.
A first step in reducing the rising death toll of inmates awaiting trial is to control the local jail population. This can be accomplished through pretrial bail reform. Holding inmates pretrial simply because they cannot afford bond is dangerous and ridiculous. A man or woman accused of crime, who has resources, is no less a danger to the community than a man or woman without resources.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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