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Unknown unknowns: Pennsylvania doesn’t track inmate deaths

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(The Center Square) — Hundreds of inmates die in Pennsylvania’s state prisons and county jails, but oversight is superficial at best.

Deaths in custody rose from 171 in 2019 to 239 in 2020 in state prisons, and 56 prisoners died in county jails in 2020, a two-decade high in Pennsylvania. And numbers could be higher — reporting requirements for both institutions are weak.

“The comprehensive reporting of deaths in custody provides a critical tool for accountability,” Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Norristown, said during a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing on what senators called a public health crisis of inmate deaths.

Though state and federal laws require death reporting, critics note that jails and prisons go unpunished when they’re uncooperative.

“Our data is spotty at best on who is dying in our jails and prisons, how they are dying, and even the most basic statistic: the number of people who die there,” PennLive Investigative and Enterprise Reporter Joshua Vaughn said. “People are dying nearly every single day in our jails and prisons as a result of our policies and in our names.”

Vaughn and PennLive colleague Brittany Hailer have found dozens of hidden deaths in custody within Pennsylvania’s prison system. Officials have released prisoners to avoid the reporting requirement and documents don’t always qualify as public records.

Only 40 of 65 deaths in custody in 2022, he noted, were properly reported to the federal government.

In 2022, he noted, 40% of deaths in county jails were suicides. About one-third of deaths were natural, though “many of those deaths” were tied to a lack of medical care.

“We count what we care about,” Vaughn said. “There’s a lot of unknown unknowns — we don’t know what we’re missing here.”

Robert Mitchell, director of the Center of Excellence for Trauma and Violence Prevention at Howard University, encouraged lawmakers to create a death in custody review committee with the authority to review deaths and recommend policies.

Jay Aronson, director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University, echoed Mitchell.

“Without effective oversight and scrutiny, prisons and jails become death chambers for people never sentenced to death,” he said.

Some problems come from staffing shortages in county jails, Dauphin County Commissioner Justin Douglas warned.

“Staffing is really challenging,” he said. “When we’re on constant lockdowns because we’re 60 correctional officers down, people don’t go outside or get gym time.”

Nor is Dauphin County alone. In a survey sent out by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, 17 of 36 counties that replied were down 10% or more in staffing. And five of them — Philadelphia, Chester, Armstrong, Bradford, and Clinton — were down 40% or more.

Beyond worker shortages, deaths in jails and prisons are a low priority.

More money in America goes toward tracking Amazon packages tracking prisoner deaths, Pennsylvania Prison Society Executive Director Claire Shubik-Richards said.

“Since 2020, seven people have been murdered in the custody of the (Philadelphia) jail,” she said. “To put that in context, prior to 2020, there were no homicides for the previous three years, and if we go back five years, there was one. Something is happening now that was not happening before.”

Cappelletti has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 996, that would require correctional facilities to report a death in custody within 30 days to the attorney general or face a misdemeanor and noncompliance fines.

Without better reporting, legislators are left in a fog.

“We don’t know how to identify problems across every county,” Sen. Katie Muth, D-Royersford, said.

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