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Texas prison deaths undercounted

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In the book “Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do about It” the authors argue that deaths resulting from interactions with the U.S. criminal legal system are a public health emergency. And they present evidence that the scope of this issue is intentionally ignored by the very systems that are supposed to be tracking these fatalities.

There is no reliable tracking of the number and causes of deaths in the criminal justice system. Whether in an encounter with police on the street, during transport, or while in jails, prisons, or detention centers, it is unknown how many died from these interactions.

Advocates say in order to make a real difference and address this human rights problem, researchers and policy makers need reliable data. And they point to the adage “we count what is important to us.”

In “Death in Custody,” Roger A. Mitchell Jr., MD, and Jay D. Aronson, PhD, share the stories of individuals who died in custody and chronicle the efforts of activists and journalists to uncover the true scope of deaths in custody. From Ida B. Wells' enumeration of extrajudicial lynchings more than a century ago to the Washington Post's current effort to count police shootings, the work of journalists and independent groups has always been more reliable than the state's official reports. Through historical analysis, Mitchell and Aronson demonstrate how government at all levels has intentionally avoided reporting death in custody data.

Mitchell and Aronson outline a practical, achievable system for accurately recording and investigating these deaths. They argue for a straightforward public health solution: adding a simple checkbox to the US Standard Death Certificate that would create an objective way of recording whether a death occurred in custody. They also propose the development of national standards for investigating deaths in custody and the creation of independent regional and federal custodial death review panels. These tangible solutions would allow us to see the full scope of the problem and give us the chance to truly address it.


Jay D. Aronson is the founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the History Department.

Aronson’s research and teaching examine the interactions of science, technology, law, media, and human rights in a variety of contexts.

He is the co-author of “Death in Custody” with Roger A. Mitchell Jr., MD.

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This interview will be recorded November 2, 2023.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi