As Feds Change Rules For Reporting Jail Deaths, Sheriffs Face Less Accountability

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An inmate walks down a hallway inside the Worcester County jail. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
An inmate walks down a hallway inside the Worcester County jail. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Tracking deaths in Massachusetts jails and prisons has long been difficult, with details of fatalities kept secret from the public, and often from family members, too.

Last year, the federal government changed the way it counts deaths in custody — a move that’s received little notice in a chaotic period marked by a global pandemic and political unrest. The new method has done little to improve transparency for the public.

"I have just been disgusted," said U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat who sponsored the Death in Custody Reporting Act in 2000. "You can't get the administration to move to even count the deaths."

Scott and others in Congress are frustrated that the government has failed to meet the requirements of the law, which was reauthorized in 2014, and to accurately and timely report on deaths in jails and prisons, as well as at the hands of police.

"We now need to find out what's going on," Scott said. And, he noted, completing death reports in jails and prisons should be seen as a responsibility, not a burden.

Consider Robert Myers' "traumatic fall" from a top bunk at the Boston-based Nashua Street Jail in March 2020. The state reported the 59-year-old's death in a spreadsheet to the U.S. Department of Justice. The cause of death was marked "investigation pending," and details were redacted.

Meanwhile, the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department, in response to a public records request, told WBUR it possessed no records of deaths last year.

Typically, the public would have almost no way of knowing what happened to Myers. WBUR was able to learn the details of his death only because they were visible in a partially redacted version of state documents obtained in a records request.

After his fall in jail, Myers "may not have been transported right away," the death report said. Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital found multiple spine fractures and bleeding that affected his spinal cord. After surgery, he was "only able to move his upper extremities." His health continued to decline, and he died at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital on May 9, 2020.

The case is still pending, according to the state's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Myers was one of 35 deaths in the custody of jails and prisons that the state reported to the DOJ in the first nine months of 2020, according to public records. WBUR found an additional death that the state appears not to have reported to the DOJ.

A spokeswoman for the federal office gathering death-in-custody data could not say how many deaths were reported in Massachusetts and nationwide last year; the public records office is working on the data, she said.

Prisoners have a constitutional right to health care in America. Yet, WBUR found in an investigative series last year that in cases where inmates died, jail and medical staff often had ignored inmates' symptoms, assumed they were lying or failed to recognize their dire conditions. The series also found that some deaths were never counted by the DOJ. WBUR found 37 more deaths in Massachusetts than sheriffs had reported to the federal government.

Nationally, members of Congress have criticized the DOJ for falling short in death reporting, and complain that it fell further behind under the Trump administration.

The federal change to reporting, on the surface level, appeared to be just a bureaucratic tweak: A different office within the DOJ would be counting the dead — the Bureau of Justice Assistance, instead of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But something else happened, too. Under the new system, sheriffs and prison officials don’t report deaths directly to the DOJ anymore. Instead, they must report them to the Massachusetts medical examiner’s office, which in turn passes the data along to the feds. And sheriffs no longer have to file reports on inmates who die at the hospital; rather, the hospitals report to the medical examiner.

This can leave major gaps in understanding what led to an inmate's death.

Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, in a statement said the Office of Grants and Research (the state office assembling the data) and the medical examiner “are committed to providing the most reliable data possible under federal reporting requirements and consult regularly as part of that process.”

But all of this adds up to less transparency for the public, WBUR found in its review of public records from the medical examiner and the Office of Grants and Research. The change also removes some of the accountability from elected sheriffs.

Jessie Rossman, an attorney with the ACLU Massachusetts in Boston, said transparency is critical, especially amid a global pandemic.

“The public should certainly know both the number of deaths that are happening at the county jails, as well as the state prisons, and also have an understanding of how many of those deaths are actually attributable to COVID-19,” Rossman said.

Yet, records show the state did not report to the DOJ that a 41-year-old man who was in the custody of the Essex County Jail died from complications due to COVID in April. The medical examiner wasn't notified until June 5 of his death, more than a month after he was buried.

In Massachusetts, jails and prisons are supposed to regularly report COVID infections and deaths to the state’s highest court, under an order during the pandemic. However, this is temporary, and unrelated to the DOJ’s mandate to collect the data.

At a time when inmates are dying of COVID, some sheriffs have cited the pandemic as a reason for not producing death reports in response to public records requests, saying they were too busy to comply. The Essex and Bristol sheriffs’ offices, for instance, have yet to disclose death records from requests dating back to September.

Nationally, Congressman Scott said, he’s hopeful the tracking of death data will improve under the Biden administration.

“Without the data, you don't have a clue as to what's going on,” Scott said. “Now you have the COVID situation where many people are, in fact, dying, and there’s no central location to find the data.”

This segment aired on January 21, 2021.


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Beth Healy Deputy Managing Editor
Beth Healy is deputy managing editor at WBUR.



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