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New Reporting System for Prisoner Deaths May Allow for Increased Intervention Opportunities

by Lonnie Burton

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has been collecting data from state prisons and locals jails regarding prisoners’ deaths since the Death in Custody Reporting Act was passed in 2000. Under its new Death in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP), the DOJ has reported 100% cooperation from state Departments of Corrections and 99% cooperation from nearly 2,800 jails.

Prior to the Act there were no standardized requirements for prison and jail officials to report the cause of death (COD) for prisoners in their custody. But under the statute, state prisons and jails are required to report all deaths, as well as causes and the decedent’s characteristics, to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). This includes information such as the prisoner’s name, date of birth, length of time in custody, legal status and crime of conviction, plus the medical treatment they received before death, pre-existing conditions, and when and where the death occurred.

According to a December 2016 report, the DCRP collected data on 3,928 prisoner deaths in state and federal prisons in 2014, which reflected a slight increase over the year before. The rate of prisoner mortality was about 14 percent higher in state facilities than in federal prisons. The death rate for males was not much higher than for female prisoners.

Another 1,053 deaths were reported by local jails in 2014, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. However, nearly 80 percent of jails reported no deaths – meaning the deaths were concentrated in a relatively small number of facilities. The leading cause of death among jail prisoners was suicide, accounting for 35 percent of fatalities.

About four in ten deaths occurred among violent offenders. One third occurred within the first seven days after admission. Natural causes accounted for most of the deaths, but significant increases were noted for deaths resulting from suicide, HIV-related causes and respiratory disease.

A DOJ report released in April 2016 found some holes in the data, however. The DCRP did not collect information on the causes of prisoner deaths when suicide or alcohol or drug intoxication was involved until at least 2008. Moreover, the immediate COD does not always reflect the contributing cause or causes of death. Jurisdictions are instructed to report the final COD only, which often overlooks “the chain of events – diseases, injuries, or complications – that directly caused the death,” the DOJ reported.

To better understand causes of death, the DOJ recommended linking with the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Death Index (NDI). The NDI is a centralized database of death certificate information taken from state vital statistics offices, and is considered the most comprehensive and accurate collection of cause of death information.

The DOJ report encouraged coordination between BJS and NDI databases by creating and using a unique subject ID for each DCRP death record, and expanding the use of decedents’ Social Security numbers to ensure matching records.

With more accurate and comprehensive cause of death data from the NDI, the BJS would be better equipped to produce statistics on specific diseases in correctional populations, the report noted. Prison officials may also be able to utilize detailed NDI statistics to plan and budget for treating chronic health conditions among prisoners. Finally, the report found that improved COD information would allow health care professionals to justify the funding and resources needed to combat diseases common to correctional populations, such as hepatitis C.

It takes about 12 months from the end of a calendar year for deaths to be included in the NDI database, around three months longer than the DCRP – a time frame that must be shortened to make the data more effective, the report noted. 


Sources: “Assessing Inmate Cause of Death: Deaths in Custody Reporting Program and National Death Index,” U.S. Department of Justice (April 2016);