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Death Rate of Prisoners in Michigan Much Higher than Reported

by Kevin W. Bliss

An investigation by the Detroit Free Press into the Michigan Department of Corrections’ (MDOC) reporting of prisoner deaths revealed major discrepancies. 

Since 2013, the total number of deaths reported by the MDOC to the U.S. Department of Justice differed from the total reported to the state legislature. In addition, 2018 had the highest death rate in the MDOC since 1994, yet the legislature was not initially made aware of that spike due to policy changes regarding which deaths were included in a “critical incident” report.

In October 2018, the Free Press contacted MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz and asked how many prisoner deaths had occurred thus far that year at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), which was already under scrutiny for a scabies outbreak, overcrowding, leaky roofs, mold buildup and poor health care. [See: PLN, June 2019, p.32; April 2019, p.58].

Gautz stated that WHV had experienced five deaths as of October 2018. However, Carol Jacobsen, a professor at the University of Michigan and director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, informed the Free Press of four other deaths at WHV that year. On May 1, 2019, Gautz confirmed the last prisoner death at the facility in 2018, bringing the total to 10 deaths at WHV.

Yet the MDOC’s annual report to the state legislature only recorded five deaths at WHV. That was due to a 2016 policy change, which stated that deaths which resulted from terminal illnesses were no longer considered a “critical incident” and thus were not included in the report. Previously, all deaths (as well as escape attempts, fires, assaults and other major events) were considered critical incidents and had to be reported to the legislature. 

“Any death in prison should be considered a critical incident, because many of the deaths, from my experience, in the women’s prison, are suspicious,” Jacobsen stated.

In May 2019, Gautz claimed errors by the MDOC were responsible for inconsistencies in reporting the total number of prisoner deaths, which was 135 at all state prisons in 2018 – the highest number since 2009. He said the MDOC at times recorded certain deaths twice and, at others times, failed to record them at all. Those problems had existed for years. He said the reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice were accurate and the ones to the state legislature were not.

Gautz blamed the spike in deaths at WHV on an aging prison population and an increase in cancer, cardiac and respiratory-related causes. “Maybe it’s an anomaly,” he opined. 

Lois Pullano, founder of the MDOC’s family advisory board, was more concerned the deaths might be due to poor medical and mental health care within the prison system.

“These are people’s lives, not just the one who passed on, but families impacted out here in our communities, some with children involved,” Pullano said. “These families deserve answers.”

Between 2001 and 2014, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a national average of 256 deaths per year for every 100,000 prisoners. In 2018, the MDOC had 483 deaths per 100,000 prisoners – 89% above the national average. 

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Sources: startribune.com, freep.com, Associated Press