by Jo Ellen Nott
On January 10, 2023, WMTW in Portland reported findings from a months-long investigation of deaths in Maine’s prisons and jails. By comparing information from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with data collected by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ), investigators found 39 deaths – 10 of them unaccounted for by the state Department of Corrections (DOC).
The report focused on causes of death for the prisoners, as well as how accurately those deaths were or were not reported. FOIA requests were needed because DOC does not disclose “confidential information” concerning the state prisoners. Unlike other state prison systems, DOC does not provide information on in-custody deaths or the incidence of violence in its annual reports each June. The state Medical Examiner’s Office also does not release information in a case until all investigations are finalized and the deceased’s family is notified. Even then, there is no way to search the office’s website for autopsy reports.
The investigators found that 20.5% of deaths between October 2019 and August 2022 were suicides, with an equal share due to accident or overdose. A death by natural causes, such as disease or old age, accounted for just over half. A cause for the remaining 9% was not available.
The 41% of deaths resulting from suicide, accident or overdoses could be mitigated by DOC policy and procedure, as in any other prison system. From programs and treatment discussed in the yearly MDOC Adult Data Report, such as behavioral health services and treatment for opioid use and substance abuse disorders, it appears the state is making an effort to combat these deaths.
States are required to report all in-custody deaths to DOJ. But federal Government Accountability Office (GOA) Director Gretta Goodwin said that in fiscal year 2021 states failed to report nearly 1,000 deaths nationwide, and of the records submitted, 70% were missing required information. Maine’s 10 unaccounted prisoner deaths included the state’s first in-custody fatality attributed to COVID-19. A death due to sepsis at the Somerset County Jail was reported as “natural.” Another death after detoxing and at the Franklin County Jail was chalked up to an “unavailable” cause. Seven deaths classified as “accidental” involved overdoses, including a woman who died in the York County Jail hours after being booked.
GAO’s Goodwin pointed out that accurate data reporting “allows you to make better policy decisions” and “give thought to what could be done to mitigate these deaths.” Her remarks should encourage DOC to do a better job with death reporting, if not also to improve programs and procedures to bring its mortality total lower.
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