Federal prison deaths report draws scrutiny from prison advocates

Prison advocates are calling attention to a scathing report from the Justice Department that details how mismanagement at federal prisons contributed to deaths of hundreds of inmates within the past decade.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report on the Federal Bureau of Prisons released earlier this month found that 344 inmates died, the majority due to suicide or homicide, in federal institutions between 2014 and 2021. Other deaths were categorized as accidental or unknown, many of which involved drug overdoses, according to the report.

“We have to do better with recognizing the challenges associated with death in custody,” Dr. Cynthia Swann, a member of the American Bar Association’s Civil Rights & Social Justice Leadership Council, said of the report.

Suicides accounted for more than half of the inmate deaths due to managerial and procedural inadequacies. High-profile deaths in federal prisons including Jeffrey Epstein in 2019 prompted the review, which identified “serious BOP job performance and management failures,” the report said.

The OIG cited “policy violations and operational failures,” including a lack of completed suicide risk assessments of inmates, as having contributed to the number of deaths. It also noted staff potentially provided “inappropriate Mental Health Care Level assignments for some inmates who later died by suicide.”

Acting New York Supreme Court Justice Stephen Miller tossed Michael Rhynes’ ’86 murder conviction after two key witnesses, who previously had been in jail with him, recanted their testimony. (Photo: AdobeStock)

Details of the report came at no surprise to Dr. Roger Mitchell, Jr., director of the Centers of Excellence for Trauma and Violence Prevention at Howard University.

“I think there’s an opportunity to not just look at the injury deaths that are occurring in the federal prisons, but also to look at the natural deaths that are occurring,” he said, “so that we can get an understanding of how individuals are dying from disease in custody from the legal system.”

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These problems are occurring due to a lack of “investment in the health and safety of those” in the prison system, Mitchell said.

“I think we don’t value the lives that are in our social system like we value other lives in this country,” he added.

Black imprisonment rates
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The OIG also found that prison staff created “unsafe conditions” for inmates and provided “insufficient” responses to medical emergencies. 

The shortcomings ranged from “a lack of urgency in responding, failure to bring or use appropriate emergency equipment, unclear radio communications, and issues with naloxone administration in opioid overdose cases,” the report said.

Prison staff incompetence shows “that we do not value those who are in the criminal justice system,” Swann said, “whether it’s those who are detained or those who are incarcerated.”

This Aug. 28, 2020, file photo shows the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

“I think our system just turns a blind eye to inmates and gives support to those who are really negligent and deficient in their duties,” she added.

In the report, the OIG noted that the federal prisons failed to produce certain documents to the Justice Department “required by its own policies” and that the department only requires in-depth reviews of deaths by suicide. As a result, little is known about the 344 inmate deaths and it makes it harder for the federal prisons to prevent deaths in the future.

The OIG made a dozen recommendations for federal prisons to prevent inmate deaths, including suicide drills, providing inmates with proper mental health treatment and ensuring that death-related records are completed in a timely fashion.  

These recommendations fall short, according to Mitchell. Protocols should also make it mandatory for federal prisons to file an action report for every death that occurs, he said.

Every death should have a mortality review where experts from law, medicine, public health and education weigh in and promote local policy that will not only prevent future deaths but improve prison conditions,” he said.

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The Justice Department released a report revealing that mismanagement at federal prisons led to the deaths of hundreds of inmates, with suicide or homicide being the main causes. The report found that 344 inmates died in federal institutions between 2014 and 2021, many due to drug overdoses. The lack of completed suicide risk assessments and inappropriate mental health care level assignments were cited as contributing factors to the deaths. Advocates are calling for improvements in recognizing challenges associated with death in custody and investing in the health and safety of inmates. Recommendations to prevent inmate deaths include suicide drills, proper mental health treatment, and timely completion of death-related records. However, there are concerns that these recommendations fall short and more comprehensive protocols are needed, including mandatory action reports for every inmate death and mortality reviews involving experts from various fields. Overall, there is a lack of value placed on the lives of those within the criminal justice system, and urgent changes are needed to improve prison conditions and prevent further deaths.

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