DOJ failed to account for hundreds of deaths in U.S. prisons and jails in 2021, report finds

Nearly 1,000 people who died in U.S. prisons and jails in 2021 went unaccounted for because of the Justice Department’s failures, according to a newly released bipartisan Senate report.

The findings, which were part of a 10-month probe by the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations, found that the DOJ failed to effectively implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 — a reauthorized version of a law passed in 2000 — that requires states that accept certain federal funding to report deaths in their state prisons and jails to the Justice Department.

“DOJ’s failure to implement DCRA has deprived Congress and the American public of information about who is dying in custody and why,” a portion of the report shared with Yahoo News reads.

“This information is critical to improve transparency in prisons and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action — such as failure to provide adequate medical care, mental health services, or safeguard prisoners from violence — and identifying specific facilities with outlying death rates.”

The Department of Justice headquarters with a flag flying.
Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The investigation concluded that the federal agency missed incarcerated death totals dating back to 2019 that were readily available in arrest databases and public sites. This is something, they say, that could have prevented other “avoidable deaths.”

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon to publicly unveil the investigation, Justice Department officials welcomed the report's findings, but emphasized the significant burden that collecting the data involves.

"We believe that gathering data on deaths in custody is a noble and necessary step towards a transparent and legitimate justice system," Maureen Henneberg, the Justice Department's deputy assistant attorney general for operations and management, said. "As I know this committee appreciates, it is a major undertaking to gather this information from 56 states and territories, who in turn rely on reports from thousands of prisons, local jails, and law enforcement agencies. But we firmly believe that it is well worth the effort.”

Overall, the subcommittee, with the help of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, also identified that 70% of records supplied to the DOJ in 2021 were missing at least one field of information related to the deaths and that at least 40% did not include a description of the circumstances of death.

At Tuesday's hearing, the subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., called the DOJ’s lack of oversight a “moral disgrace.”

Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., speaks into a microphone at a hearing.
Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Aug. 3. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“Despite a clear charge from Congress to determine who is dying in prisons and jails across the country, where they are dying and why they are dying, the Department of Justice is failing to do so,” Ossoff said. “This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country.”

For nearly two decades, Ossoff noted, the DOJ collected and published the death and jail data, which was a readily available resource for Congress. Then, in 2019, it abruptly stopped.

According to NBC News, the Justice Department from 2001 to 2019 used its Bureau of Justice Statistics to analyze the data it collected. But just before 2020, that responsibility shifted to the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

“The crisis in America’s prisons, jails and detention centers is ongoing and unconscionable,” Ossoff said. “The Department of Justice and the Congress must treat this as the emergency for constitutional rights that it is.”

The committee's ranking member, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was even more pointed in his critique.

“The American people deserve the truth,” Johnson said. “We lost the transparency, and it doesn’t look like the DOJ is providing it. … Hopefully, we can do more than pass laws, and hopefully, we can save lives.”

Sen. Ron Johnson speaks at a Senate hearing, his nameplate in front of him.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., at a Senate hearing on March 23. (Getty Images via Ting Shen/Bloomberg)

Human rights groups expressed how disappointed they are in the DOJ’s oversight.

“Being jailed in the United States should not mean being condemned to die in the shadows of the criminal legal system,” a statement from the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization, said.

Andrea Armstrong, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans, spoke at Tuesday’s hearing about the importance of sound data collection. Armstrong and her students created a website, which collects, publishes and analyzes deaths in custody in Louisiana jails, prisons and detention centers — something she said she started because the information was not readily available anywhere else.

“There are a lot of reasons to be concerned when a death in custody occurs,” she said. “It is impossible to fix what is invisible and hidden.”


Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images