Why are so many people dying in our nation’s jails?

OPINION: If we want long-lasting safety for all of us, we must have justice for all of us, too. How we treat the people in our carceral facilities is a reflection of who we are as a nation.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The torrent of headlines in recent months of deaths and suffering in our nation’s jails is unrelenting and unconscionable.

Footage of a man with schizophrenia in an Indiana jail was recently released showing him locked in a padded solitary confinement cell the size of a parking space, with no toilet. Jail staff stripped him nude and left him for three weeks. As he visibly suffered, instead of offering him mental health care, the jail left him isolated in this cell, where he died from starvation due to their neglect three weeks later.

In that same Indiana jail, medical staff ignored a woman who was vomiting blood and begging for help. She died in her cell.

A destitute man who could not pay $100 in pretrial bail to get out of an Arkansas jail starved to death after jail staff neglected to provide adequate health care for a year.

A 35-year-old mentally ill man was found dead in his filthy cell in the mental health wing of an Atlanta jail, his body infested and crawling with insects and bed bugs. Records show that the guards and mental health staff noted that he was declining for three months but did nothing to help him.

And two weeks ago, a 91-year-old man died in the Los Angeles County jail, which is facing the possibility of being found in contempt of court for its ongoing practice of chaining mentally ill people to benches and chairs for hours and forcing dozens of people to sleep on concrete floors surrounded by filth due to overcrowded conditions.

Through these headlines, the nation gets a glimpse of what I see regularly as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s National Prison Project: conditions in our nation’s jails and prisons that fall shockingly far from what the Constitution and basic human decency require.

We all deserve to be safe. People incarcerated in our nation’s jails, prisons and detention centers — who are part of our communities — are no exception. We must do better to protect the rights and dignity of all our community members.

One basic improvement we must commit to is better data collection. Right now, the data that is collected and reported is woefully incomplete. Federal law requires federal and state prisons,  and local jails, to report deaths in custody to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), but a bipartisan report released in September 2022 by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that the DOJ is failing to enforce the law.

In one year from 2020-2021, DOJ failed to identify at least 990 deaths in jails and prisons, and 70% of the data collected was incomplete. Without this information, there is no transparency into what goes on in these facilities, especially when 17 states have no formal legal standards or oversight bodies for local jails. The lack of transparency stymies the ability to identify the root causes of deaths.

The greater and more urgent change we must make, as a nation, is to give up our dependence on punishment, torture, and death, and instead commit to a future where everyone has freedom and dignity. Our current system does not achieve this. We need policy interventions earlier in the criminal legal process, so people are not criminalized and incarcerated because of their poverty, their disabilities or their race.

On any given day, more than half a million people are locked up in the more than 3,000 local jails in the U.S., and close to 5 million people per year spend at least a day in jail. The majority of people held in jails are locked up because they are awaiting court hearings or trial on their charges, and they cannot afford to pay cash bail for their freedom.

Mass incarceration is not inevitable. For almost two years, we undertook a national experiment of release and decarceration. In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people locked up in jails decreased greatly because police arrested fewer people, courts reduced bail amounts and jails released people early to reduce populations. Overall, crime rates were unchanged or decreased when we released people from jails — despite fearmongering to the contrary.

But since early 2022, conditions in most jails across the country have deteriorated to a crisis point, while reports of deaths are going up. COVID-19 only accounts for some of the rising toll, as suicides, overdose deaths, and preventable deaths due to medical and mental health neglect are also rising.

We cannot scroll past these headlines and accept them as “business as usual” in this country. The daily suffering of over half a million human beings in our country languishing in abysmal jails cannot be the price we pay for a punishment system that degrades our collective humanity without keeping us safe.

If we want long-lasting safety for all of us, we must have justice for all of us, too. We have the ability to choose policies that provide for every person’s needs and treat them with dignity. How we treat the people in our carceral facilities is a reflection of who we are as a nation.

Corene Kendrick is the Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

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