Skip navigation

University of Texas Researcher Makes Data on In-custody Deaths Comprehensible

by Matt Clarke

All law enforcement agencies, jails and prisons in Texas are required by state law to report in-custody deaths, but the raw statistics are not easily understood. That shortcoming prompted University of Texas Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis postdoctoral fellow Amanda Woog to create the Texas Justice Initiative – an electronic data set that spans the years 2005 through 2015 and contains interactive search criteria such as the name, race, age, demographics, and time and cause of death for people who died in-custody.

“We can’t have an informed conversation about who’s dying at the hands of police, or who’s dying in jails, if we don’t literally know who’s dying and how they’re dying,” said Woog. “I think this information can help us get to the bottom causes of mortality in the criminal justice system and with that lead us to solutions.”

Those are laudable goals. One of the factors that has hampered recent nationwide discussions about unjustified police shootings is a lack of statistical data concerning such incidents. The only other state with a similar compilation of death statistics is California, which has a population 50% greater than Texas but about the same number of annual in-custody deaths.

Almost 70% of the more than 6,900 deaths during the 10-year period reported by the Texas Justice Initiative were among state prisoners; 16% occurred in jails and 16% were in the custody of law enforcement officers.

In-custody deaths in Texas averaged 623 per year, though spiked in 2015 to 683. Pre-booking deaths and deaths during arrests rose sharply in 2015 to 153, up from 83 in 2005. Nearly 90% of such deaths involved people who had not been charged with a crime.

The majority of deaths, 4,870 (70%), resulted from natural causes, while 772 (11%) were suicides and 573 (8%) were what the police called “justifiable homicide,” or killing in self-defense – including police shootings. Another 275 (4%) were due to drug or alcohol intoxication and 168 (2%) involved accidental deaths. The rest were for “other reasons.”

Of the 1,111 people who died in city or county jails, 54% (601) died due to natural causes, 27% (299) committed suicide and 9% (99) died as a result of drug or alcohol intoxication. Just over 40% of jail prisoners who died had been in custody less than 8 days.

The number of deaths that occurred in police custody before people were booked was 1,118. Justifiable homicide was the leading cause of unnatural deaths for black and Hispanic men, representing 30% and 34% of such deaths, respectively.

Whites made up 42% of in-custody deaths, while 30% involved blacks and 28% were Hispanic. Whites were disproportionately represented in in-custody deaths, as they comprise 31% of the Texas prison population.

“I think it is an extremely significant project that contributes to the understanding about police use of force and deaths in custody,” said University of Texas law professor Jennifer Laurin. “The state of Texas required after the last legislative session that reports be submitted on deaths in custody to the attorney general’s office. It is unusual for police departments to make that data available. The contribution of the Texas Justice Initiative was to make that data usable. What this does is render it comprehensible to researchers and the public who want to know what police departments are doing.”

It is also very useful for researching deaths that occur in prisons and jails; for example, examining death rates in public prisons versus facilities that are privately-operated, or differences in the types of deaths that occur in Texas prison units, state jails and county or city jails.