By Tomas Navia
Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in a federal prison in lower Manhattan triggered an investigation and the reassignment of two corrections officers, as well as the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, by Attorney General William Barr.
But it also shined a light on a problem: The federal government has no idea how many prisoners take their own lives in federal and state prisons, even though it’s required by law to keep track.
The government is obligated under the 2013 Death in Custody Reporting Act to collect and disclose information from law enforcement agencies and states on all deaths in custody, including suicides and deaths during an arrest.
The bill, which was passed in 2014 following Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, required the Justice Department to analyze the national data and issue a report by 2016 with suggestions for reducing these deaths.
But that never happened, in part because the Justice Department shuffled the data-collecting responsibility around to different bureaus, causing delays and leaving experts and policymakers with little information on how common prison suicide is.
“I don’t understand why, as we sit here in the second half of 2019, the most recent data we have on deaths in custody is from 2014,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “But I can tell you that has a serious impact on our ability to diagnose and address the problem of prison suicides.”
Today, nearly five years after the bill passed, no new data on prison suicides is available and the Justice Department has not written the report. The department won’t start collecting the information until the fiscal year 2020 at the earliest, according to a December 2018 Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General report.
There are some available statistics that show the prevalence of suicides in certain prisons or states. The Bureau of Prisons, which operates the facility where Epstein killed himself, had 27 inmate suicides in the fiscal year 2018, a five-year high, according to USA Today.
Across the country, states including Texas and Utah have passed death-in-custody reporting legislation in recent years in response to an increase in prison deaths. Texas had a 10-year high of 40 inmate suicides in 2018, according to state records obtained by the Associated Press. Utah’s first deaths in custody report show that suicides accounted for over half of the 71 deaths that occurred in county jails from 2013 to 2017.
But there is no comprehensive national data.
The data could help illuminate any possible relationship between prison suicides and factors such as the types of crimes people are charged with, inmates’ ages, and whether inmates were placed on suicide watch and for how long.
Collecting and publishing the required data and report would allow legislators and criminal justice experts to study prison suicides and make targeted policy recommendations to reduce these deaths, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va), the bill’s sponsor, said.
“You can’t have accountability unless you have a count,” Scott said. “The bill gave two years to get a report done, and they haven’t started counting yet. It just seems to me that it cannot possibly be that complicated to collect the data.”
Before the Death in Custody Reporting Act was passed, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics collected data from states on a voluntary basis. After the bill’s passage, the bureau developed a methodology to expand the data collection to federal agencies, according to the inspector general’s report.
The bureau collected at least one year’s worth of the required data from 104 federal law enforcement agencies by the end of 2018, the inspector general found. This data is incomplete, however, because the Department of Justice does not know how many agencies in the United States have law enforcement abilities.
The inspector general concluded that the lack of knowledge makes it impossible for the department to comply with the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, because it doesn’t know exactly how many suicides occur in the custody of federal law enforcement agencies.
The Death in Custody Reporting Act gives the DOJ the ability to withhold grant money from states that do not submit the required information. Short of that, the Bureau of Justice Statistics was going to use information from open sources, like news reports, and local law enforcement agencies to count deaths under states’ jurisdictions.
But it never used that approach. In the fall of 2016, because of statutory reasons, the Justice Department tasked a different bureau — the Bureau of Justice Assistance — with collecting the state data. That bureau then took almost two years to come up with a plan that resembled a previously used method that only captured half of all deaths, according to the inspector general report.
The inspector general’s office concluded that because of this flawed approach, the Justice Department might not get the quality of data that fulfills the intent of the law.
Now the Justice Department will not begin collecting the necessary state data until 2020 at the earliest because of the delays, according to the inspector general’s office. Once it starts, there’s still the question of what will happen with the required report.
As of August 2018, the DOJ had no plans to write the required report or release the data it will collect. By not writing the report, the department is limiting its ability to reduce deaths in prisons and jails, the Inspector General concluded.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance did not respond to requests for comment.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent data shows 621 reported suicides in jails and prisons in 2014. Because states reported data voluntarily, the count is not comprehensive, Scott said.
The bureau still collects the information and is working on releasing its 2015 and 2016 data, but staff turnover has slowed progress, Justice Department spokesperson Tannyr Watkins wrote in an email.
Given the lag between data collection and publishing, years might pass before the Justice Department releases new national prison suicide data collected under the Death in Custody Reporting Act.
High-profile deaths like those of Epstein and Sandra Bland, who was found hanging in a Texas jail cell in 2015, three days after her arrest during a traffic stop, lead to pointed investigations that might clarify circumstances around those deaths, but miss bigger trends.
In Epstein’s case, data could have helped to implement changes in prisons that might have avoided his death, Fathi said. Epstein had been recently taken off suicide watch and was in solitary confinement, which are risk factors for inmates committing suicide, but without data it’s difficult to know just how common these factors are.
“Jeffrey Epstein is obviously a uniquely unsympathetic person, but he was someone whose life the government was obligated to protect during his incarceration,” Fathi said. “Although this case is obviously unique in some ways, in other ways it is typical of the utterly avoidable suicides that happen in our prisons and jails literally every day.”