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UCLA Study Finds Over Half of ‘Natural’ Deaths Inside L.A. County Jails Showed Signs of Physical Harm

by Keith Sanders

A recent study of deaths over the past ten years inside Los Angeles County jails revealed that over half of those recorded as “natural” showed evidence of physical harm.

The study was published June 1, 2022, by researchers at UCLA’s Carceral Ecologies Lab, in conjunction with the BioCritical Studies Lab. Led by associate professor Terence Keel, they reviewed autopsies of 59 people who died in the jails from 2009 to 2019. That wasn’t all of the 292 deaths during the period, only those for which records were not under a “security hold” by the county Sheriff’s Department.

“California autopsies and coroner’s reports are public documents,” Keel noted, allowing that the study was compromised by not having access to “all the records.”

The county operates the largest jail system in the U.S., incarcerating roughly 12,000 individuals most days. Most are pretrial detainees, and Keel’s team discovered that 75% of jail deaths also involved those who were awaiting trial. His study was prompted when Dignity and Power Now, a local grassroots organization, sought access to the autopsies via a 2019 public records request, amid concerns of abuse, inadequate medical care and abysmal jail conditions.

“In the jail context, it’s a culture of violence. It’s a culture of racism. It’s a culture of lack of accountability,” Keel said.

The study noted that the average U.S. life expectancy of almost 79 years gets halved in county jails; there the average age of those who died was about 40. This raised questions about the nature of those deaths. Keel said that his research then discovered over half of the 26 individuals whose deaths were officially chalked up to cardiac disease, respiratory illness, or the flu showed signs of “hematomas, bone fractures, and lacerations.”

For instance, when John Horton died in solitary confinement in 2019, his death was ruled a suicide. But Helen Jones, Horton’s mother, said that she had photos of her son’s battered body. Moreover, a coroner’s report also noted that Horton had suffered injuries to his head and a kidney. The county later declared his cause of death “undetermined.”

As part of a 2015 federal settlement agreement with county jails, the federal Department of Justice may participate in jail death autopsies, “along with representatives from the Office of Inspector General, the Office of the County Counsel, and medical personnel from Correctional Health Services.” But law enforcement officers are also often present — at least 90% of the time, according to Keel’s research.

That’s a “[conflict] of interest,” according to Harvard fellow Justin Feldman. A researcher at FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, he said that the presence of officers “can not only place pressure on the death investigators, but provide a particular version of events that makes them look good.”

Feldman said UCLA’s findings were consistent with trends in jails across the country. He called for independent coroners and medical examiners unbeholden to law enforcement agencies. “Autopsies can be ambiguous,” he said. “Where there is room for interpretation, there is room for various kinds of bias.”

Sources: LAist; “Natural Causes?” 58 Autopsies Prove Otherwise, UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics (2022). 

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