Sample Essay on Deaths in Custody

Deaths in Custody


Death in custody or in detention entails all deaths that may be reported in police custody, secure detention centers, local jails, prisons, psychiatrist detentions, or any form of death that may involve a state agent. Death in custody may involve a suspect killed while under police jurisdiction, held as a prisoner, a child dying while in the care of the police, or a suspect shot by a law enforcement agent. If an inmate dies as a result of a fight within the prison or detention facility, it is considered as death within the custody of law enforcement agents.  Even though death following a contact with a law enforcement officer may be considered as death in custody, it may entail several aspects in which the law may not point to death within the boundaries of a law enforcement agent. In the case of a suspect or prisoner dying within the territories of a law enforcement agency, it is considered as death in custody as the prisoner is entitled to a duty of care but the law enforcement agencies.

Federal prisons refers to correction facilities managed by the (FBP) commonly known as the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The FBP is under federal government, although it does not include private services under restricted contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. On the other hand, prisons provide long term restrictions to prisoners and is enforced by the Federal Government. Prisons often take in prisoners with terms exceeding one year, although this may vary with each state. In most cases, the facilities are contracted by the federal government in case they have prisoners that may wish to transfer (Chaney & Robertson, 2013).

According to 2015 investigations, over 100 Americans have won litigations that point to the brutality and violations of civil rights in the hands of law enforcement officers and in the prisons (Heide & Chan, 2016). Although data still remain unclear on the reality in the prisons as concerns brutality, death cases and rights abuses, research have shown increased cases of deaths, particularly of prisoners convicted of violent crimes such robbery, terrorism, and manslaughter. The statistics have often raised a number of issues as relate to treatment of inmates by law enforcement officers, security agents, and police encounters. Although the statistics are scanty, pointers and studies have shown that the security agents in addition to law enforcement agencies do not reveal the exact number of prisoners and convicts who have died while in their custody. The federal government in addition do not and has often treated the issue scantily failing to provide any logical statistics needed.

According to Heide & Chan (2016), particular concerns have raised the issue of deaths of inmates and involve excessive use of force and brutality by law enforcement agents and fatal shootings. Additionally, death has been reported that arise from drug intoxication, poor medication, alleged drunkenness, and suicide cases. Although deaths occurring within the police custodies vary, the rising cases have set off an alarm on the rising trend in federal prisons.

Factors Implicated in Death

The table below shows some of the major factors that led to deaths of inmates while under custody. While the report and statistics may be an approximation, the reality check shows a rapid rise in death of inmates while in prison or detention.

Figure 1



Figure 2


Figure 3

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From the two tables, it is clear that the number of deaths caused by law enforcement agents is rather high (table 1) as compared to cases of suicide, intoxication, or by accident. All through the years between 2003 and 2009, the number and percentage of deaths has consistently maintained a regular pattern of increase. It is only during the years of 2003 and 2005 that a small decrease was realized which can be attributed to regulations and human rights activities that highlighted on the rising number of deaths. Suicide and intoxication also remain a high factor that contributed to the high number of deaths between the years with 2009 realizing the highest percentage (Heide & Chan, 2016). The Department of Justice, Bereau of Justice Statistics confirm that from statistics on deaths in custody, homicide and deaths of other persons contribute to the highest number of death cases of inmates. While the Department acknowledges that the rising number may be a factor beyond their control, research shows that due to lack of accountability within the police force, use of excessive force by the police continues to be the number one cause of deaths. Of significant attention is the use of the button, or the back of the gun to knock out prisoners unconscious.

Figure 3 shows the total percentage of cases of deaths between the period 2011 and 2013. The highest percentage remains death by natural causes followed by unknown causes. While the causes of the deaths may be unknown, through research and investigation, the number one cause of deaths in prisons and correctional facilities remains as police brutality and poor condition of the centers. Additionally, poor medication or medical attention highly contributes to the high number of deaths despite the fact that all correctional facilities have a standby medical practitioner.

The State Department further acknowledges that due to the violent nature of some prisoners, the police and security agents are forced into the use of excessive force to disarm or immobile the prisoner (Wangmo et al, 2014). This may arise out of “self defense” a concept that has gradually taken root amongst the police force on any allegation of a death case. In most cases, the police justify the use of force by citing an aggressive behavior by the prisoner or convict. Wangmo et al, ( 2014) argues that in most cases, the police applies the maximum force possible to disarm the convict or totally harm him or her. In such a case, if proper medication or medical attention is not given to the prisoner, death may occur within a few hours. The police often and in most cases do not act with speed to seek for medication for a prisoner, a factor that has fueled and seen the rise of death amongst prisoners and inmates. A survey and research carried out amongst freed inmates point to a situation whereby prisoners are often beaten to a point of death and left in dimly lit prison cells for a period of over one week with only a supplement of food which is given out only once in a day. Such a situation often aggravates the prisoner’s health status that often leads to death within a short while (Lozano & Molina, 2015). While justifying their actions, police who are mandated the duty of care cite their security and the security of other inmates as a reason of the use of excessive force and brutality. Although such an information is often frowned upon by top federal prison officers and the federal government, the reality on the ground, often point to a different scenario in which prisoners are exposed to inhumane conditions of excessive beatings and handling.

Reports on the major incidents involving deaths of inmates is often clouded in secrecy in addition to the manner in which these data are collected by the researchers. While the reporting may be scanty, many states have varied in their reporting of death cases and related incidents. The way in which data is collected too may not give accurate information, for example, from the way the police deal with a suspect before arrest, dealing with mentally ill individuals, the exact nature of the incident, and how a suspect may show incidents of a threat to public security. While these are pointers to the complications that come with reporting and researching deaths in the hands of law enforcement agents, a lot of questions remain unanswered on various law enforcement performance employed while managing prisoners.

Age Group

Lozano & Molina (2015) argue that death in custody in the US knows no age nor skin color. According to statistics, people of all ages are at risk of dying at the hands of police officers or in detention. From children under the care of their parent(s) who are in custody to that elderly individual serving life sentence. The treatment and conditions at the prisons of detention centers never guarantee one an easier life within the prison walls. The table below shows the statistics and numerical frequency of the number of deaths of people of all ages from children as young as below 19 years to adults of over 70 years.

However, the highest number of inmates dying while in police custody range between 30 years to 39 years, followed by teens between the years of 20 to 29 years. Persons aged over 40 also face deaths within the prison walls, but the number is considerably lower as compared to inmates aged between 20 and 50 years. Although prison officials often attribute the high rate of deaths to people within the age bracket of 20 to 50 with a sense of agility amongst the age group. Additionally, research has often pointed out that inmates convicted of crimes such as armed robbery, manslaughter, terrorism, and or rape, often have a high chance of deaths within the prison walls that individuals convicted of minor offenses such as fraud, stealing, trespass, misuse of telecommunication equipments, among others (Heide & Chan, 2016). Research shows that, individuals convicted of major offenses, have a high chance of killing an inmate or committing suicide. These are individuals who have been psychologically traumatized in their lifestyle and may not care much while in prison. Often and in most cases, they attribute their placement at the detention centers believing that there is no further detention, they can be taken as far as they have reached. This often brings in a sense of careless attitude that motivates them to an aggressive behavior towards themselves or towards others.

Although prisoners below the age of 19 have a higher frequency of death in the prisons or in detention, their behavior has often pointed to disillusion in life in addition to harassment, and mistreatment while in the prison or detention center. The majority of teenagers convicted and imprisoned, often lose focus in life and may resort to harmful behavior that may cause their deaths while in detention. Research has shown that on very rare occasions do police use excessive force on teens. However, the frequency of deaths is often attributed to the psychiatric condition of the inmates, disillusionment, frustration, and guilty feeling. Additionally, fear of the unknown is often a factor that motivates youngsters to commit suicide while in detention. On the other hand, harsh and hard life in the prisons is considered as a factor in the deaths of youngsters a factor that is attributed to the difficult conditions that the teens often find themselves while in detention. Brutality by fellow inmates is also a contributing factor of young inmates. According to the Department of Justice, older inmates often force young prisoners into behaviors that may lead to death. For example, the State Department acknowledges that homosexuality is a rampant sexual behavior within the walls of more detention centers.

According to the State Department, the majority of new prisoners is often exploited by older inmates who have been in prison for long into sexual practices that are psychologically distressing. These include homosexuality, drug abuse, and other forms of behavior that may frustrate the young inmate. In most cases, the older inmates are in between the ages of 20 to 26 who feel a sense of belonging within the prison and are often given special treatment by the other prisoners. The State Department acknowledges that the trend has often exposed young prisoners to harsh treatment, a situation that is ignored by prison officials. While the prison officials, including prison warders have the mandate of duty to the prisoners, in most cases, when fights break out, the prison officials never have a sense of emergency to rescue the situation and bring order. The duty to ensure that all prisoners are safe, protected, and is not exposed to any harmful object or person is an illusion in most State Detention centers. While the State Department tries its level best to give the prisoners the best environment within the prison walls, the situation often goes out of hand when the prisoners run amok within the detention center (Heide & Chan, 2016).


While statistics show a high percentage of males succumbing to death as compared to the females, the trend varies from one detention center to another. Males detention centers record the highest number of death cases as a result of police brutality, and suicide. Female detention centers record low deaths as compared to deaths in male detention centers.


The number of females committing suicide, dying as a result of brutality, or caused by others is low in female detention centers. This can be attributed to lack of aggression by female inmates. Research points to better female treatment by prison warders as compared to the male counterparts. According to research, the majority of female inmates receives good treatment as compared to the males. In most cases because of the special treatment and the requirement by the females, the police tend to handle them with great care as compared to the males. This therefore points to a situation in which the females find no reason to commit suicide or to develop an aggressive behavior (Noonan & Ginder, 2013). Additionally, female prisoners often establish a warm relationship with prison officials which enhances a positive relationship between them such that in a situation that they lack anything or are in need of anything, they are provided with unlike their male counterparts. These special treatments often guarantees the female inmates a good life at the hands of the prison officers. This makes it difficult to engage in life threatening behaviors such as drug abuse or overdose or direct suicide. According to the State Department, most deaths in female detention centers are as a result of psychological traumas and disturbances by the female inmates.

The State Department argues that the situation in female detention centers is rare and minimal as most female inmates receive a good and high level treatment occasioned by frequent visits by relatives and friends. The situation, therefore, gives the female inmates reasons to engage in healthy habits unlike their male counterparts. While natural deaths in female detention centers are normal, the rate of death is very low as compared to natural deaths in male detention centers. This can be attributed to the aggressive and harsh environment that male inmates find themselves.

However, the situation is not all that rosy for women, despite their favorable prison condition. A report by the U.S Federal Bereau of Justice covering woman’s death between 2000 to 2013 showed that the number one cause of female deaths is suicide. The resulting cause of high rate in local jails for women includes chronic mental illness, in addition to abusive habits by the prison officials. Much of the legislation intended for women prison focus more on the prison term instead of the condition and treatment of women inmates. For example, during the year 2013, 967 female prisoners succumbed to death. The number increased from 958 to over 967 by the year 2013. According to the Los Angels County Police Chief, in the Department of Corrections, the county detention facility will enhance and make faster the legislations needed to protect female inmates. However, the number of prisoners succumbing to death continues to rise despite the highlights by the detention officials in the County. However, a new research showed that the sudden increase in the death of inmates resulted from natural causes or illness related which saw the number of deaths increase by over 24 percent in  2013 alone. Over the years, the total number of women has never gone below the 110 mark in Los Angels County alone.

The picture is replicated all over the states with States such as New York, Pennsylvania, Hawaii is recording a higher number of deaths. Women’s prisons such as Bayview Correctional Facility, Taconic Correctional Facility, Leath Correctional Facility, Indiana Women’s Prison, Dwight Correctional Facility Arrendale State Prison among others, continue to register a high number of deaths in women’s prisons unlike in the previous years (Heide & Chan, 2016).

The government by the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program continue to track the number of deaths in prisons of both the males and the females. Although the program only takes note of deaths arising from natural illnesses, suicide, unnatural deaths, and or homicides, it does ignore other death arising from cases of police mishandling of prisoners under arrest or while still facing prosecution before final judgment. The number, thus given by the program towards deaths in the prisons is often far below the exact number on the ground. Over the years, the program has come under criticism due to its warm treatment of the deaths registered.

Hard Labor

According to Heide and Chan (2016), hard labor in male detention centers highly contributes to the deaths. The situation is replicated in most prisons all over the United States and most involve hard core criminals with a history of aggressive behavior. Hard labor in most prisons involves constructions and building, breaking rocks, and landscaping. These activities often leave the prisoners weak and psychologically traumatized. Exposure to hard labor and difficult living conditions is a high contributor to deaths in male prisons (Noonan & Ginder, 2013). While female prisoners engage in light activities that involve cleaning, farming, knitting, and household chores to keep them busy, the male is often engaged in activities that are mentally draining, physically exhausting, and spiritually daunting. These factors, together with harsh living conditions for the males highly contribute to their early deaths. On the other hand, these factors contribute to poor health status of the prisoners with no guarantee of proper medical care. Lack of medication, and the attitude of males towards minor ailments often contribute to their bodies wearing off very fast during a prison term with the chances of succumbing to death very high.

Lack of Legislation

According to research, lack of legislation that safeguards prisoners in the hands of the law enforcement agents is the number one contributor to brutality, harsh treatment, and poor living conditions of the inmates. While the majority of correctional facilities are striving to improve the States of their prisons, a lot still needs to be done to improve the same. The majority of the prisons is congested, far above their holding capacity contributing to poor living conditions for the inmates. Additionally,  the high number of prisoners increases the chances of spread of diseases which highly contribute to the deaths of inmates. This is particularly common in female correctional centers.

Women are basically prone to ailments such as chronic infections, which is highly infectious within a congested area. While the majority of the prisons strives to distribute drugs for treatment and vaccines to protect the children, the majority of children with who are under the care of their imprisoned parent often succumb to death as a result of poor environment. For example, according to research Leath Correctional Facility, registered the highest number of deaths of females in the year 2012 as a result of an outbreak of a chronic disease which, according to the center management, was as a result of contaminated water. The death toll of the inmates reached 12 before an intervention was discovered and the other inmates treated. While such scenario’s are common within most prisons, the poor rate of response and inadequate medication is the number one cause of deaths as a result of natural diseases or ailments. However, in the case of Leath Correctional Facility, the situation could have been remedied were it not for poor and slow response of the medical team.

Lack of appropriate legislations that guide prison health status, police brutality, and poor medical attention to inmates often remain the direct contributor to failure by authorities to look into the welfare of inmates keenly. While some detention centers are gradually incorporating laws and regulations that look into the affairs of the inmates, most states and correction facilities have nothing on the ground to take care of the same. According to the State Department of Justice, Congress, and relevant state authorities in charge of Correction facilities, prisons, and detention centers are drafting a paper that will put into focus the death of inmates in the hands of the police and other law enforcement agencies. According to research most cases go unattended to by the police and law enforcement agents simply because of the lack of legislation. If put in place, for example a law that requires the prison facilities to keenly look into the health status of every inmate after a specific period of time, it will go a great mile in reducing the number of deaths as currently registered. The majority of the detention centers and prison facilities only rely on the basic health status of inmates without taking a keen role in giving appropriate medication or attention when needed. While some facilities give their best such as Bayview Correctional Facility, the majority of female prisons offers little in terms of medication.

Minority and Black Deaths

According to research majority of inmates who die while in the hands of law enforcement agencies are blacks and those from minority ethnic groups.


According to a study in California on the number of police deaths, the Hispanic is reported to have succumbed most to police brutality and deaths. The study shows that the blacks account for 21.1 percent of the deaths, followed by the Whites with 31 percent, and Native Americans least at 0.6 percent. However, the state on the ground always point to a situation whereby, the blacks and other minority groups such as Asians die most as compared to Native American sand even the Hispanics. Although the results can be disputed, the resulting outcome often point to some ethnic groups suffering most in the hands of the police. Recent killings and deaths in prisons are majorly involving the blacks and minority groups (Chaney & Robertson, 2013).


According to the figure above, the number of blacks is highest as at 3.4 per 10,000 as compared to whites at 1.8 per 10,000 arrests. Although most of the deaths reported here, mostly point to death outside the detention center, it gives a highlight on the difference of deaths as per a given race. Currently, this number has doubled as witnessed in the recent past frequented with many street protests and demonstrations.


Death in custody and in the hands of law enforcement agencies is not something new or strange in the United States of America. According to several studies, the number of families losing their loved one’s through the justice system is alarming and the trend seems to go beyond the current statistics. The failure by the State Department of Justice and correction centers, paint a grim picture for any individual arrested and detained or imprisoned for a given period of time. Many correction centers such as Florida Parishes Juvenile Detention Center takes pride in its use of updated programs that give focus on the inmates well-being in addition to taking a keen interest in the welfare of the inmates at any given time. If all detention centers and correction facilities can take an active role in initiating such programs, the number of deaths behind prison walls can greatly reduce in addition to improving the programs meant for correcting.

According to the laws and regulations of the Justice Department, prison facilities are meant to give offenders the chance to reform and adopt a new life style. Additionally, the justice Department often strives to maintain a good public relations exercise, an initiative that it should focus on by working on activities and programs that can reduce the number of deaths of inmates at the hands of the police or law enforcement agencies. Such initiatives need to start with the federal government by initiating and passing legislations that makes it an offense to contribute to or fail to prevent a death of an inmate in the case of illness or brutality, or mistreatment by other prisoners. Through and by such legislations, the State Department can go a long way in reducing human rights abuses occasioned in correctional facilities and prisons. Prisons deserve equal treatment from the State Department and their right to life should be respected as much as they are denied freedom within the walls of detention. It is therefore a call for all parties concerned to pass legislations, enact a law, raise awareness, and bring into sharp focus the condition of prisoners and convicts at the hands of the police and law enforcement agencies.



Chaney, C. & Robertson, R. V. (2013). Racism and police brutality in America. Journal of African American Studies17(4), 480-505.

Heide, S., & Chan, T. (2016). Deaths in police custody. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine.

Lozano, J. G., & Molina, D. K. (2015). Deaths in custody: a 25-year review of jail deaths in Bexar County, Texas. The American journal of forensic medicine and pathology36(4), 285-289.

Noonan, M., & Ginder, S. (2013). Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000-2011, Statistical Tables. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Wangmo, T., Ruiz, G., Sinclair, J., Mangin, P., & Elger, B. S. (2014). The investigation of deaths in custody: A qualitative analysis of problems and prospects. Journal of forensic and legal medicine25, 30-37.