Deaths in federal prisons draw fire from Senate panel


Capital News Service

WASHINGTON — More than 300 people died of suicides, homicides, and accidents in federal prisons between 2014 and 2021 — numbers that drew fire from a Senate panel Wednesday.

The deaths “too often have been the result of mismanagement and operational failures,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who presided over a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“It is evident that many of the issues the committee has highlighted over the years, including understaffing, overuse of restrictive housing and employee misconduct, will continue to have deadly consequences if they go unaddressed,” Durbin said.

The hearing focused on a Department of Justice inspector general’s report on prisoner deaths in federal prisons released earlier this month.

Out of the 344 nonmedical deaths between 2014 and 2021 detailed in the report, 187 were ruled as suicides, followed by 89 homicides, 56 accidents and 12 cases in which the manner of death was unknown.

More than half of the prisoners who died by suicide were in solitary confinement or housed alone in a cell. According to the report, the “risk of suicide is further compounded” in restrictive housing, where inmates spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells.

“We know that the overuse of solitary confinement causes lasting, irreparable mental harm to incarcerated people,” said Durbin on the Senate floor ahead of the hearing, as he announced his upcoming reintroduction of legislation aimed at limiting the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

Researchers have linked solitary confinement to both physical and psychological health problems. Almost 10,900 federal prisoners are currently held in segregated units alone or in smaller cells with others. Forty-five prisoners have been in these units for over a year, according to data published by the bureau.

“Everyone who is in restrictive housing will suffer some form of mental or physical damage,” Colette Peters, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, acknowledged at the hearing.

But Peters said that almost 40% of those who lived in isolation did so by their own choice because they were afraid of other prisoners.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said the nation's suicide rate "should cause concern for all Americans," but that incarcerated people die of suicide at a much higher rate and asked Peters how the bureau will curb these numbers.

Peters responded that the bureau's data indicates that the suicide rate among its incarcerated population is lower than that of the general population in the United States.

Bureau spokesperson Randilee Giamussio told Capital News Service that the suicide rate in fiscal 2022 was 14.4 per 100,000 prisoners. Giamussio clarified that Peters referred to the suicide rate of American men in the general population, which was 23.1 per 100,000, according to provisional data for the same year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bureau suggested that this sample more accurately compares to the incarcerated people who die of suicide in federal prisons, since almost all of them are men. In fiscal 2023, 25 people incarcerated in federal prisons died of suicide, according to the bureau.

Peters stressed that prison guards had the "toughest beat" in law enforcement.

"We need to pay them more," she said. According to a current job posting, the salary for a federal corrections officer starts at $48,809.

One guard who worked outside of Boston quit his job for a better offer: to work at a grocery store, Peters said. She added that the bureau has only filled about 82% of its authorized correctional officer positions.

She said that while the average training time for law enforcement officers typically exceeds 20 weeks, officers in the federal system only receive about six weeks of training.

However, special training for those who work in restrictive housing and reforms to reduce the amount of time prisoners spend isolated was underway, Peters said.

The inspector general’s report found deficiencies in mental health assessments of federal prisoners.

The majority of those who died by suicide were misclassified as not needing any significant mental health care. That was just one of the failures that "contributed to inmate suicides," the report said.

Seven prisoners died by suicide in single-cell confinement while quarantining during the coronavirus pandemic. They were placed in isolated cells "not because they were acting up, but because of COVID quarantine," Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz told the panel.

He drew attention to the fact that these deaths occurred despite the central bureau office ordering its facilities not to use single-cell confinement to quarantine prisoners.

Five of these prisoners were not previously examined for mental health issues, Horowitz added.

Additionally, investigators encountered problems with federal prisons' documentation: records for 76 deaths were missing.

The Government Accountability Office found in a separate report that the bureau had not fully implemented 54 of the 87 recommendations from two prior studies on improving restrictive housing practices.

Horowitz stressed that these issues are not new to the bureau.

"The problems we have identified over the past 20 years will not be solved overnight," he said, "but they must be addressed with urgency.”



Editor's Note: For a comprehensive report on prison deaths from 1996 to 2000, please read Insight On the News article On Dope Row reported by Baltimore Post-Examiner Publisher/Executive Editor Timothy W. Maier. The investigative report found that "at least 188 men and women died of drug overdoses in state prisons, 68 percent of these between 1996 and 2000..many of these deaths, and widespread trafficking in dope inside the prisons, could have been prevented if state prisons had aggressive and competent drug-screening policies, not to mention better access to treatment programs.,,Between 1998 and 2001, according to figures produced in response to Insight's FOIAs, Maryland had the second-highest number of officially reported fatal overdoses with 15 deaths - - right between California with 31 and Texas with 12.