Reporting On Jail Deaths

A step-by-step guide.

Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2016, 6:05 PM EDT

On July 13, 2016, we published a database of more than 800 deaths that took place in jails and police lockups in the previous year. The government doesn't release this kind of data, and jails often aren't required to give out information about people who die in their custody, so we had to dig deep. We filed public records requests, stayed late ringing local sheriff's departments and relied on local news reports. But our work is still not complete.

We are asking families, law enforcement and reporters to help us identify deaths we missed, as well as fill in details such as arrest dates and alleged crimes. (The scope of our project covers jails — short-term facilities in which many inmates have not been convicted — not prisons.) We are only tracking information from July 13, 2015, to July 13, 2016, even though there will be hundreds of more deaths this year. Many will go unreported — but it doesn't have to be that way. To assist reporters who want to continue covering this issue, we have put together the following tips:

1. Identify jails and police lockups in your community

There may be one county jail in your area but multiple police lockups. Contact the local sheriff and police departments to determine how many facilities hold new detainees, even if it's only for 24 to 72 hours. If a local jail doesn't send out press releases about deaths — many don't — file public records requests to obtain unreported deaths.

2. Initial reporting on new deaths

When reporting a new death, seek to identify the inmate's name, age, arrest date (to show how long the person was in custody), alleged crime (or whether that person was convicted) and any information about the circumstances of the death. It's important to remember that many people in jail have not been found guilty. Be cognizant of the fact that a person's race, mental health, gender or history of drug use may be part of the story, but should not be cited in a way that diminishes or excuses the person's death.

Seek to obtain the full narrative from the arresting officer, as well as documents showing the bond amount. In some cases, inmates are arrested for crimes that would not result in prison time if they were convicted, and they cannot afford to pay small bonds. If a bond amount strikes you as questionable (too high or too low for the charge), consider following up to see if it was set according to a broader bond schedule — which indiscriminately sets amounts based on the charge — or if it was set or confirmed by a judge.

An official cause of death usually is not released immediately, because of a pending investigation or autopsy. However, you may learn valuable information from other inmates who witnessed the incident, as well as from family members. You can find out whether an inmate was on prescription medication or had medical or mental health issues, and whether family members reached out to the jail to pass along this information.

3. General follow-up reporting

When a death occurs, it's important to file a public records request to obtain the investigative and autopsy reports when they are complete. Sometimes, news outlets do not follow up after the death is announced, which means little is known about the results of the internal investigation. Ask for any disciplinary letters sent to jail staff members in connection with a death, and look into whether the official cause of death raised questions about protocol or quality of medical care. You can also obtain video footage and photos, although you should weigh privacy concerns when considering whether to publish them.

In some cases, law enforcement or the jail may be reluctant to share information. They may also deny public records because of ongoing litigation. In those cases, you can rely on court documents or records obtained through discovery, if a legal team is permitted to share them. Sometimes, other law enforcement bodies — like a different sheriff's department — are called in to investigate a death. In that case, the independent agency may have a copy of an investigative report, and you can file a public records request with it.

It's also important to note whether the jail has had other deaths in a short period of time. (You can use our database to help determine that.)

4. Reporting on suicides

When reporting on suicides, use discretion about how much detail you provide, and follow best practices as described here. Also keep in mind that suicides in jail are preventable. Seek to find out whether that was the case in each death.

Here are questions that can help answer that:

  1. Was this person on suicide watch? (One way to determine this is to file a public records request for a person's intake form, which will show, for example, whether a person had indicated a previous suicide attempt or other warning sign that wasn't taken into account.)
  2. Who did this person's intake screening? (For example, if the same officer who arrested the person did the anti-suicide screening, then the inmate may not feel comfortable sharing information about medical history or drug use.)
  3. When was this person last checked on? What is the general protocol for checking on inmates who are or are not on suicide watch? (If a person indicated a medium level of risk, for example, but wasn't checked on for over an hour, that would be against best-practice standards. Additionally, if a person was actively suicidal, but was not continually monitored, that could also be a violation. )
  4. Was this person checked on personally by staff, or using cameras? (Camera-only watch is generally not approved by anti-suicide experts.)
  5. What kind of cell was the person in? What was the instrument used in the suicide?
  6. Did this person take anti-psychiatric medication? Was this medication continued by jail staff, or was there a gap in treatment?
  7. Did the autopsy/toxicity report indicate this person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  8. Was this person seen by a mental health professional?

5. Reporting on drug- and alcohol-related deaths

Remember that drug or alcohol addiction is a disease and should be treated as a medical issue. Find out the circumstances around the death.

Here are some questions to ask:

  1. Did the autopsy/toxicity report indicate this person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
  2. Was this person put in a "detox" cell?
  3. What kind of medical treatment did this person receive? (For example, if it was a heroin-related death, does the jail allow the use of methadone or Suboxone?)
  4. How often was this person checked on? When was this person last checked on?
  5. Did the intake form indicate the jail was aware this person was under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Are there other warning signs they could have caught? (For example, was this person arrested for public intoxication?)

6. Reporting on medical-related deaths

Try to find out more about the person's medical condition and care while in jail.

Some questions to ask include:

  1. Who provides the jail's medical care? Is it a private contractor? Has that contractor come under scrutiny for previous jail deaths?
  2. Was this person taking prescription medication, and was that medication continued in jail?
  3. Were there any allegations that this person's medical complaints were not taken seriously by staff?
  4. Was there an altercation with an inmate or staff member prior to the death?

Finally, if you do report out a new death that occurred in the time period that we are covering, or uncover additional details that we have not reported, please get in touch using the form below. If you are a local reporter publishing a story, let us know — we'll promote it here.