Between 2000 and 2007, 8,097 detainees died in jails nationwide according to a July 2010 report by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The jail mortality rate dropped from 151 deaths per 100,000 detainees in 2000 to 141 per 100,000 in 2007. That statistic is deceiving, however, because the average daily jail population and number of deaths actually increased over that time period.
Nationally, suicide was the leading cause of jail deaths, totaling 29 percent of all deaths, followed by heart disease as the leading illness-related cause of death at 22 percent. Heat exposure was not listed as a cause of any of the reported deaths in the BJS report.
The rarity of heat-related jail deaths raises questions about two recent deaths at the Richmond, Virginia city jail. On June 14, 2010, 54-year-old Grant Sleeper was arrested on an outstanding warrant for threatening then-Governor Timothy M. Kaine and his daughter in a rambling letter he had sent to the governor’s office.
Sleeper was booked into the Richmond City Jail on June 16, 2010, but was hospitalized two days later. He died at the hospital from environmental heat exposure on June 26, 2010. Sheriff C.T. Woody, Jr. claimed that Sleeper had a pre-existing medical condition and denied that deputies knew he had any heat-related problems.
Sleeper, who was homeless, may have suffered organ failure due to prolonged heat exposure and dehydration, according to Dr. Matthew Bartholomew, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the VCU Medical Center. If Sleeper was not able to cool off, death would be possible, Dr. Bartholomew stated.
Just days later, on June 30, 2010, jail prisoner Kenny Wayne Bennett, 48, died after he was found unresponsive in his bunk. He had been arrested for stealing a can of beer from a grocery store. Bennett’s sister, Brenda, was told by jail staff that her brother’s death was heat-related. According to Sheriff Woody, however, no evidence supported that claim.
He said deputies do all they can to keep prisoners cool and hydrated. But he admitted that the jail, which was built in the 1960s, does not have air conditioning and some parts of the facility can reach 120 degrees.
To combat the heat, jail staff provide prisoners with ice, fans and water coolers; following the deaths of Sleeper and Bennett, the jail also installed large industrial fans. In addition to the heat-related problems, overcrowded conditions at the facility have led some city officials to call for the construction of a new jail.
The Virginia Medical Examiner’s office later determined that Bennett’s death was due to hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. It was unclear whether heat exposure may have contributed to his death.
“My heart goes out to anyone that’s incarcerated,” said Brenda Bennett. “If you need to be there and you did the crime, you need to be there. But why should you have to die there? It’s neglect.” The Virginia ACLU agreed and asked the DOJ to investigate conditions at the Richmond jail in the wake of the two deaths.
Since then two other prisoners have died, though their deaths were not heat-related. On November 30, 2010, Janice Motto, 49, died after showing “signs of unusual behavior,” according to a press release by Sheriff Woody. She was going to be taken to a hospital at the time of her death and had been jailed on a petit larceny charge. Also, in September 2010, Richmond City Jail prisoner Peter Dellova, 45, died due to congestive heart failure, the medical examiner determined. He had been arrested for contempt of court, failure to comply with a summons and driving with a suspended license.
Sources: Washington Post, Times Dispatch, www.wtrv.com, http://kissrichmond.com, “Mortality in Local Jails, 2000-2007 (BJS, July 2010, NCJ 222988)
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