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What can studying death rates tell us about California’s county jail system?

What can studying death rates tell us about California’s county jail system?

Picture of Matthew Brannon
What can studying death rates tell us about California’s county jail system?

In September of 2019, three people in the Shasta County Jail died within a two-week span. Asked about the level of medical care, one of the officials in charge of the 484-bed facility said it was “more than adequate” and better than the care one might get in a hospital. 

Hearing that made me want to know, Is my county an outlier? While that two-week span was surely an outlier, do people die at a rate similar to Shasta in other California county jails? 

When I tried to look into this question, I found that the data to answer it was available, but it was scattered and difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons. 

One thing that would be easier to examine, and perhaps more revealing, is the change in the rate of jail deaths over time. Are there counties that have seen their death rates rise? And if so, what’s driving that rise? Additionally, are there countries seeing their jail death rates drop, and if so, is that the result of a deliberate effort?

An equally interesting question I hope to examine is — how have the most common causes of death changed over time? And is there a large disparity between individual counties? For example, I know that more than half of the Shasta County inmates who have died in the past 14 years have died by suicide, but I don’t know how typical that trend is. With the time and expertise provided by the 2020 California Fellowship, I could answer those questions. 

Studying my coverage area alone might not be enough to get a full picture of the change in death rates, which is why I hope to examine the state as a whole, giving me more robust data to work with. Expanding the project to the state level would also make it relevant to a dramatically larger audience.

However, I recognize that dispassionate facts and figures may not be compelling enough for readers to study on their own. Because of that, I plan on emphasizing stories in my community, especially stories coming from families of people who have died while incarcerated. That way, there’s a visceral element to the story that can humanize the people involved and be more relatable to readers who might not have experience related to California’s jail system. 

My hope is that the project can step back and assess the state of inmate treatment in the county jail system from a 30,000-foot view. While there are, of course, other indicators of care and treatment besides the death rate, they may be too nuanced to study at such a grand scale. That’s why I’m planning to keep the focus of the topic somewhat narrow and mainly focus on deaths. 

I believe I’ll be able to get the data I need through the California Department of Justice’s Open Data Project, which jails report their deaths to. Any relevant data that I’m missing could likely be compiled with supplementary public records requests.

My goal is to clearly illustrate, perhaps with a map or graphic, which counties have done good or bad jobs of making sure their incarcerated population receives adequate medical treatment, both for their own health and for the health of the broader criminal justice system. I believe studying changes in jail death rates over time is one of the best ways to accomplish that goal.

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