When a sheriff or a marshal takes a man from the courthouse in a prison van and transports him to confinement for two or three or ten years, this is our act. We have tolled the bell for him. And whether we like it or not, we have made him our collective responsibility. We are free to do something about him; he is not.1
Warren Burger, Address by The Chief Justice, 25 Rec. of the Assn. of the Bar of the City of N.Y. 14, 17 (Mar. 1970 Supp.).
The mission of Incarceration Transparency is to publicly share data and research to address significant harms from conditions of incarceration. Prisons and jails are essentially “closed institutions holding an ever-growing disempowered population.”1 At any given moment in the United States, approximately 1.9 million people are behind bars, at least a quarter of whom have not been convicted of a crime.2 Nationwide, in 2019, local jails admitted over ten million people each year and state and federal prisons admitted almost six hundred thousand people.3 These facilities have a constitutional obligation to protect the safety of people in custody, including providing general and emergency physical and mental health care.4
This website collects and analyzes data on deaths behind bars as a first step towards shining a light on conditions in prisons and jails. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice, at least 86,173 people died nationwide in jails and federal and state prisons from 2001 to 2018.5 Approximately 20% of deaths of people in jails and state and federal prisons nationally were of people detained pretrial from 2001-2018.6
How and why a person died in custody, however, is often kept secret, even from family members and relatives. Moreover, patterns in deaths behind bars may be indicative of broader challenges for the safe, secure, and humane operation of prisons, jails, and detention centers.
Deaths in custody, particularly in jails, should be rare events. Thus, when deaths occur, it is critical that consistent and reliable data is available to understand the death and its implications for the operation of the facility.
1Margo Schlanger & Giovanna Shay, Preserving the Rule of Law in America’s Jails and Prisons: The Case for Amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 11 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 139, 139-40 (2008).
2 Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022, Prison Policy Initiative (Mar. 14, 2022).
3 Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2021 – Statistical Tables, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep’t of Justice (Dec. 2022); E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep’t of Justice (Dec. 2021).
4 In general, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment governs conditions for people held pretrial (Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979) (applying Fourteenth Amendment) and in a majority of circuits, to youth held in detention centers (Rudy Estrada & Jody Marksamer, The Legal Rights of Young People in State Custody, 5, 13 n. 28 (June 2006)), while the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” applies to people held pursuant to a conviction (Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) (applying Eighth Amendment).
5 National death data was compiled from the following three resources: E. Ann Carson, Mortality in State and Federal Prisons 2001-2018- Statistical Tables, 2, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, (April 2021) (reporting 67,874 deaths in federal and state prisons); E. Ann Carson, Mortality in Local Jails 2000-2018-Statistical Tables, 6 tbl.1, Bureau of Justice Statistics., U.S. Dep’t of Justice (April 2021) (reporting a total of 11,106 deaths from 2008–2018); Margaret Noonan, Mortality in Local Jails 2000-2007, 7 tbl.8, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dep’t of Justice (July 2010) (reporting 7,193 people died in custody in jails 2001-2007). Thus, the total number of deaths in jails 2001–2018 is 18,299.