As a result of this knowledge gap, the Loyola University law school has undertaken an effort to do what the state refuses to do: create a comprehensive list of deaths in local jails, state prisons, and detention centers.
The two-year effort, led by professor Andrea Armstrong, is funded by a $410,000 grant from Arnold Ventures. Armstrong’s students will collect information on deaths in custody between 2015 and 2020 in Louisiana’s 130 lockups, and create a public-facing database to report the findings.
The project is desperately needed, according to researchers. “There’s really no more fundamental obligation that a prison or jail has than keeping the people inside safe and alive. If there are people dying inside, we need to know that,” said University of Texas professor Michele Deitch.
And many are dying. In St. Bernard Parish, the Sheriff’s Office released information in January 2020 about a death from drug detox—but failed to report a similar death three months earlier.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office failed to disclose the deaths of two detainees who hung themselves in 2017 until a third detainee did the same thing some weeks later. Jefferson Parish has also seen a series of lawsuits filed to address jail conditions, where four suicides, eight deaths from illness, and two overdoses took place between 2017 and 2019. It was the deadliest jail in the state for those three years on a per capita basis, according to Reuters.
In the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, 44 people have died in custody since 2012, prompting calls for reform there as well.
Orleans Parish has long been a focal point for Loyola’s Armstrong and other reform advocates. Poor conditions in the jail there led to the creation of a consent decree between the sheriff and prisoner advocates in 2013. Armstrong has been keeping a running tally of deaths there. She said that growing concern over mass incarceration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and deaths like that of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail have heightened public awareness.
“There’s a lot more attention around the racial disparities that we see,” Armstrong said. “We now have this enhanced understanding of what the criminal justice system is.”
The federal government mandates that local jails send death reports to state law enforcement commissions, which compiles them for submission to the U.S. Department of Justice. But data is often incomplete or out of date, and deaths are not broken down by facility.
Professor Armstrong also said she hopes the state will create its own official accounting of deaths in custody, and use the information to save lives. “Data alone is never enough,” she said. “It also takes a commitment to change, and the leadership by people who are directly impacted, to point out these areas for making jails and prisons safer and more humane.” To date there is no basis to assume anyone in law enforcement or state government in Louisiana has any interest in keeping prisoners alive or ensuring any type of accountability when prisoners die in custody.
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