Senate investigation finds DOJ undercounted nearly 1,000 deaths in jails and prisons in 2021

·5 min read

Belinda Maley says she replays the last conversation she had with her son Matthew Loflin over in her head every day.

An audio recording reveals their conversation while Loflin was being held at the Chatham County Detention Center in Georgia in 2014.

“I need to go to the hospital,” said Loflin to his mother in the call. “I’m going to die in here.”

Loflin had been arrested for drug charges and was waiting for his day in court.

While in jail, he complained about health problems and begged for help, according to his family.

“I’m coughing up blood and my feet are swollen,” said Loflin in the phone call. “It hurts.”

Despite his cries for help, Loflin did not get the proper medical care for a heart condition while in jail, according to a report from a bipartisan Senate investigation.

The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office said Loflin was sent to the hospital where he died.

Loflin’s family filed a lawsuit against the health care provider at the jail at the time and other officials but the case was dismissed in 2019, according to court records.

Maley came to Capitol Hill to share her story with lawmakers and spoke with our Washington News Bureau before her public testimony.

“He begged me to help him get out because he knew he was going to die and he didn’t want to die there,” said Maley.

Loflin’s story is one example of hundreds of deaths in jails or prisons each year, according to a new report just released by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

The findings show the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) failed to report at least 990 deaths in jails or prisons around the country last year and did not provide complete information about custody deaths.

Those undercounted deaths were reported at the state or local levels, but not at the federal level, which impacts information given to members of Congress.

The report says this means the DOJ failed to effectively follow the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA).

“This failure in turn undermined transparency and Congressional oversight of deaths in custody,” the report said. “DOJ’s failure to implement DCRA has deprived Congress and the American public of information about who is dying in custody and why. This information is critical to improve transparency in prisons and jails, identifying trends in custodial deaths that may warrant corrective action…”

Jonathan Fano’s death was also highlighted in the investigation.

According to the report, Fano was arrested in October 2016 in Louisiana after behaving erratically during a mental health episode.

Fano was arrested and held at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, where the Senate report says he was denied psychotropic medication to treat his mental illness.

Fano took his own life while in custody in February 2017.

Our Washington News Bureau spoke with his sister Vanessa Fano, who also came to Capitol Hill to be a voice for her brother.

“I placed our trust into the system,” said Vanessa Fano. “He struggled to be in isolation. He felt alone… He was not just a statistic. He was not just a number. He had a family. He had a story. He had ambition, dreams.”

Lawmakers held a hearing Tuesday and questioned the DOJ about the reporting failures.

“What the United States is allowing to happen on our watch in prisons, jails and detention centers nationwide is a moral disgrace,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA), chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “We found that in recent years and over multiple administrations, the department’s implementation of this law has failed despite clear internal warnings from DOJ’s own Inspector General and DOJ’s Bureau of Justice statistics.”

“The American people deserve the truth here,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), ranking member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. “The American people deserve to understand what’s happening in federal government agencies.”

The DOJ testified about prioritizing collecting data on custody deaths, but pointed to challenges under the current law.

“We believe that gathering data about deaths in custody is a noble and necessary step towards a transparent and legitimate justice system,” said Maureen Henneberg, deputy assistant attorney general for Operations and Management at the Office of Justice Programs for the DOJ. “The current process deserves to be reevaluated.”

The DOJ says it’s working to improve its data collection from states.

“We can no longer directly collect data from state and local agencies as we once did,” said Henneberg. “We are working hard to achieve more comprehensive reporting from states and continue to provide assistance to states to improve reporting.”

The families we spoke with say they’re determined to prevent others from suffering the same loss.

“As I’m standing here, I’m reminded that Jonathan will not be returning home,” said Fano. “The only thing that can really necessarily be done is to attempt to ensure that this does not happen again to others.”

“If they’re in jails or in prisons, they’re still human beings and they do have rights,” said Maley.

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