7,000 Deaths in Custody

A first-ever database provides a detailed look at how people died during encounters with the criminal-justice system in Texas.

Nacho Doce / Reuters

Between 2005 and 2015, 6,913 people died while in legal custody in Texas. Many died of natural causes while serving long prison sentences. Others ended their own lives. A few died at the hands of another inmate, or, in some cases, police or correctional officers. In a handful of instances, people died from cardiac arrest after quickly ingesting a lethal dose of drugs while being arrested or after getting pulled over by police. Together, these deaths form revealing patterns about Texas-style justice and the state of corrections in an increasingly carceral country.

This information used to be hard to access, but it’s now readily available in an online database called the Texas Justice Initiative. “Some family members may not have gotten a full account of how their loved one died, so in that way I feel some responsibility about making the information public,” said Amanda Woog, the postdoctoral legal fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin who created it. When we spoke, she was unsure of what the response to the project, which launched on Wednesday, would be. But she seemed very optimistic that it would be valuable for policymakers, researchers, journalists, justice administrators, academics, and advocates. Her main goal was to make the information widely available and easy to access.

The final product was culled from thousands of internal reports and includes names, time and place of death, cause of death, time in custody, and a description of the circumstances. Aided by web developers, Patrick Diaz and Vitaly Kezlya, and her husband, Robert Pinkard, Woog envisioned and created a website that’s well organized and cleanly designed.

“The custodian of the data could spin it however he likes, but if it’s out in the open then everyone could have access to it,” she said when I asked her about the impetus behind the work. “There is a fair amount of data. It’s just a question of whose hands it’s in.” She is the first person to ever assemble such a database for Texas and make it available publicly. The raw information used to create the dataset is available for download on the site and also upon request from the Texas state attorney general. Law-enforcement agencies, including local jails, the criminal-justice department, and others, are required to file a report with the attorney general every time a person dies in custody. “The attorney general’s office has been very responsive to my requests,” Woog said.

“These deaths occurred in local jail cells, in the backs of police cars, and on prison sidewalks,” Woog wrote in the summary report of her findings. Among the “suicide” listings is one for Sandra Bland, who died in police custody after a traffic stop. Like Bland, more than 1,900 of those who died, or 28 percent, had not been convicted of or even charged with a crime. “These extra-judicial deaths in custody are diffuse. They occur at every point and phase of our criminal-justice system, in a manner that remains largely untracked and unexamined,” Woog wrote.

Officially, 70 percent of deaths in custody resulted from natural causes or illness, 11 percent from suicide, and 8 percent from “justifiable homicide.” Sixty-eight percent (4,684) occurred in prisons, 16 percent (1,111) in jails, and 16 percent (1,118) in police interactions or police custody. Woog pulled together additional meaningful information from the raw data, highlights of which appear below.

Pre-booking deaths reported by law enforcement have been on the rise since 2005, and more than doubled from the fewest reported deaths in 2006 (74) to the most reported deaths in 2015 (152).

The racial disparities in Texas’s criminal justice system generally translate into racial disparities in custodial mortality. While blacks made up 12 percent of the state’s population in 2010, they comprised 36 percent of those incarcerated between 2005 and 2014. They also accounted for 30 percent of the deaths in custody from 2005 to 2015.       

Justifiable homicide was the leading cause of non-natural deaths for black and Latino males 30 and 34 percent respectively—compared to 24 percent of white males.

Suicide was the leading cause of non-natural deaths for both white men and white women, with 47 percent of white male non-natural deaths and 49 percent of white female non-natural deaths—compared to 31 percent for males and females of other races/ethnicities.

Forty-one percent of people who died in jails were reported to have appeared intoxicated, exhibited mental-health problems, or exhibited medical problems upon entry into the facility.

Woog did further analysis of the demographic information within the data:

Although blacks made up 12 percent of Texas’s population in 2010, they comprised 36 percent of the incarcerated population between 2005 and 2014 (the last year for which data were available), and 30 percent of custodial deaths from 2005 to 2015.

Whites made up 45 percent of Texas’s population in 2010, but comprised 31 percent of the incarcerated population from 2005 to 2014, and 42 percent of custodial deaths between 2005 and 2015.

Latinos accounted for 38 percent of Texas’s population in 2010, and comprised 32 percent of the incarcerated population between 2005 and 2014, and 28 percent of custodial deaths from 2005 to 2015.

For comparison, on the national level, nearly 16,000 people died in custody between 2007 and 2010 at the state and local levels, according to the Custody Reporting Program at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of that number, 279 were listed as homicides and another 181 were labeled accidental. Ten percent were suicides. The bulk—13,060—were classified as natural. As for individuals killed during an arrest, the BJS estimates that an average of just over 900 people are killed during the process of an arrest each year overall. Police officers are responsible for many of these cases. In 2011 alone, the BJS received 689 reports of arrest-related homicides committed by law enforcement. That represents a 39 percent increase over the prior two years.

The data gathered on Texas reflects a markedly high number of deaths in custody compared to national trends. The increased attention to suspicious cases such as Bland’s—which some see as representative of a deadly trend in over-policing of black citizens—magnifies the importance of this kind of tool, which allows anyone to study and analyze the data.