The safety of individuals incarcerated in prisons and jails is fundamental to maintaining a functional criminal justice system. Because correctional facilities across the country are not a system at all, but a decentralized network of state prison systems and local jails, keeping track of deaths that occur when people are being held in custody is anything but simple.
In 2000, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, authorizing the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to begin counting and collecting data on people who die behind bars. RTI was chosen to handle the program starting in 2009. Our role includes collecting demographic data on individuals who die in prison or jail, along with why they were incarcerated, and details about the causes of death. We also collect data on the jail population in general, such as the number of admissions, number of releases, and the average daily population.
Flexible Data Collection Model Drives Exceptionally High Response Rates
To succeed at tracking deaths in custody, we must adapt to the varied needs of these facilities and draw on our expertise in multiple disciplines.
We use every data collection mode in our repertoire except for in-person interviews. Prisons and jails can respond to the survey via the web, mail, fax, bulk data files, or phone. Our commitment to convenience for our respondents results in a cooperation rate of 100 percent for state prisons and 96 percent of the 2,900 local jails we survey.
To accommodate respondents and ensure accuracy, we receive and process supplemental data submissions or changes when they are received. We recognize that certain information about deaths in custody may not be available immediately, such as when a case goes to a medical examiner. Institutions are able to report changes in their death statistics, even if it means we have to update previously provided data so it can be reflected in future reports. This flexibility leads to better data for our client, the jails and prisons themselves, and policymakers.
In addition to the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program, we also conduct two other related projects for BJS. The Annual Survey of Jails provides more detail about the facilities, staff, budgets, and inmate populations of a sample of 900 jails nationwide. The Census of Jails is a complete count of jail populations, done every four to six years. By using RTI for all three of these projects, BJS makes the process more efficient and builds on our success communicating with jails and prison systems.
Accurate Statistics Highlight Trends and Gaps, Support Vital Policy Decisions
With the nation’s criminal justice system under increased scrutiny, getting accurate statistics about mortality among people in custody is vital to policy decisions. The Deaths in Custody Reporting Program has helped illuminate real and potential gaps in the care needs of inmates, related to both physical and mental health. It has also pointed to characteristics and risk factors associated with suicide and homicide in custody, making it easier for public officials to take steps to prevent these deaths.
Having accurate data on life behind bars also helps dispel myths about this often hidden aspect of American society. Homicides, for example, are less prevalent in prisons and jails than popular media often make them out to be. In fact, illness is the leading cause of death among inmates.
In our years managing this program, we have acquired information on the causes of death for thousands of people in local jails and state prisons. We have called attention to trends in the age, gender, race, health status, location, and other characteristics of people who have died in custody. As federal surveys go, the Deaths in Custody Reporting Project is relatively new, but it has already delivered significant results.
As we continue to refine our methods and expand our work with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, our experts remain the leading authority on deaths in custody.