Death in Custody: Investigating the High Death Toll in Los Angeles Jails and America’s Ongoing Problem with Incarcerated Deaths

Los Angeles, California had a particularly deadly year in 2023, with 45 people dying in custody. Among these deaths were nine drug-related deaths, three suicides, three homicides, and one death suspected to be caused by hypothermia. The county’s jails proved to be deadlier than they were just before the pandemic, despite a lower incarcerated population. This information sets Los Angeles apart from many other municipalities where jail deaths are not publicly announced.

In their 2023 book “Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do About It,” authors Jay D. Aronson and Dr. Roger A. Mitchell delve into the lack of data on deaths in jails and prisons as a national problem. They highlight the fact that although some counties or states track this data well, the exact number of deaths across the country remains unknown. In an interview, the authors emphasized the significance of this issue.

According to the authors, the lack of systemic data collection about deaths in jails is a major concern. The Death in Custody Reporting Act, a federal legislation that required jails and prisons to report deaths in custody, was instrumental in gathering data until it expired in 2006. Despite attempts to update the law, issues arose with collecting accurate and comprehensive data on deaths in custody.

The authors also shed light on the societal perceptions of jail and prison populations, emphasizing that people in custody are often stigmatized and disregarded, which contributes to the lack of concern for their well-being. However, they note that there is a growing awareness, particularly among younger generations, about the need to critically assess the criminal legal system and advocate for change. Additionally, they highlight the importance of recognizing the humanity of incarcerated individuals, regardless of race or gender.

Another aspect discussed in the book is the significance of collecting data on deaths in custody as a starting point for developing comprehensive prevention strategies. The authors draw parallels to other areas of public health where accurate data collection has led to significant policy and practice changes.

Regarding the handling of in-custody deaths, the authors point out that California is behind other states due to its reliance on an antiquated sheriff-coroner system, which poses inherent conflicts of interest. They also emphasize the importance of transitioning away from such systems in favor of medical examiner systems for better practices.

Furthermore, the authors challenge the perception that jails have evolved over time, stating that jails have always been deadly places and remain so despite changes in appearance. They stress the need for systematic federal intervention in collecting data on deaths in custody to address this national problem.

In conclusion, Aronson and Mitchell assert that deaths in custody serve as a signal of systemic issues that require urgent attention. They urge the federal government to intervene and systematically collect data to address the widespread suffering and abuse that persists in jails and prisons.