Jail cell in Austin County

Thousands of prisoners die in state and federal prisons every year. Hundreds of more pre-trial detainees die in county jails, often from medical neglect.

Now, they literally don't count, at least according to the federal government.

The Department of Justice hasn't counted or tracked in-custody deaths since 2014, despite a congressional mandate to do so. The DOJ has ignored the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013, which directed the department to complete a report in 2016 on prisoner deaths, including those in state prisons and county jails.

The DOJ cited difficulties in collecting data from county, state, and federal agencies. That's its explanation for years of bureaucratic bungling, inertia, and indifference.

Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, called the federal lapse “shocking and incredibly damaging.”

A nation that sends satellites to the far corners of the solar system should be able to compile basic statistics and store them in a national database. Getting counties and corrections departments to report in-custody deaths to a single source in their state, before sending them to the federal government, isn't rocket science.

Texas, for example, compiles jail deaths through the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Other states could report them to a similar regulatory or oversight agency, or to their office of attorney general.

Congress ought to give DOJ a reasonable, but firm, deadline to compile statistics from every state.

The information should include numbers of deaths, where they occurred, and a brief summary of how they occurred – information essential to understanding trends, identifying problems, and allocating resources. Without it, law enforcement agencies operate without oversight.

A DOJ spokesperson said the federal government will start compiling statistics on in-custody deaths this month. But she also said the information will not be public.

That's beyond ridiculous. Statistics on in-custody deaths pose no threat to security or privacy. Congress ought to make the law explicit: The information must remain public.

At last count, roughly 5,000 prisoners a year were dying in custody in the United States, including about 1,000 in county jails. Those numbers probably have risen in the last five years, but no one knows for sure.

The lapse is inexcusable, and a slap in the face to the families of prisoners who die in jail, awaiting a trial or adjudication.

Those deaths must count again.

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