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Investigation Finds Hundreds of Unreported Deaths in Tennessee Prisons and Jails

by Harold Hempstead

A November 2021 investigation by Knoxville TV station WBIR found prisons and jails across the Volunteer State were underreporting in-custody deaths to the state Bureau of Investigation (TBI), in apparent violation of Tennessee law. The investigation counted 602 people who died in custody from 2017 to 2020, while only 337 deaths were reported to TBI.

Failures in fatality record-keeping were among those cited in a January 2020 report by the State Comptroller of the Currency that was highly critical of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) and Nashville-based private prison giant CoreCivic, which operates several prisons for DOC. See: Tenn. Comptroller of the Currency, Performance Audit Report, Dept. of Corrections, Jan. 2020.

Accurate reporting of deaths remains a problem for DOC as well as numerous county jails in the state. In its investigation, WBIR found 265 unreported deaths at state prisons and jails in just four years, raising the total 78.6% above TBI’s tally. Missing from the 2017 TBI Law Enforcement Related Deaths Report were 30 unreported fatalities. The next year the number was 18. In 2019, it jumped to 64. The trend continued in 2020, when 153 deaths went unreported.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kelsey Wolfe was one of those who died in custody. Deputies found the young mother unresponsive in her cell at the Cooke County Jail in August 2021, five days before her scheduled hearing. The investigation into her death is still ongoing, but her family’s attorney, Lance Baker, worried that reports of continuing reporting problems show that “[n]othing’s getting better. It’s just getting worse.”

Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.) § 38-10-102 (2017) “requires law enforcement, correctional agencies and courts to report their law enforcement-related deaths to the TBI.” Its sponsor, state Rep. Harold M. Love, Jr. (D-Nashville), said he “became concerned with people dying in custody” and wanted to ensure that all were counted.

The law “requires the TBI to produce an annual report on all law enforcement-related deaths that occurred in the prior calendar year.” The reports do not list names, just numbers. The agency also updates its reports, though the WBIR investigation found “the numbers still don’t add up.” A TBI spokesperson said, “we can only compile what they send us—nothing more and nothing less. Our publications are a snapshot of the data at a given date and time.”

Rep. Love, who’s considering updating his original law, said that enforcing the reporting requirements and making sure they line up so that agencies know what they are supposed to report are areas of concern.

TBI scheduled an audit of the data in its reports to begin in February 2022. The audit will include all in-custody deaths, as well as use-of-force incidents and arrest-related non-forcible deaths. The agency also promised to reach out “to the federal government and local agencies to determine why the data is drastically different.”  

Additional source: WBIR

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