Senate probe finds nearly 1,000 unaccounted prison deaths in 2021

During the hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Sen. Jon Ossoff said a report showed that at least 990 individuals died in custody in 2021, and that the Department of Justice failed to investigate those deaths as they are required to by law.

Video transcript

JON OSSOF: Today, after a 10-month bipartisan investigation, we can reveal that, despite a clear charge from Congress to determine who is dying in prisons and jails across the country, where they are dying, and why they are dying, the Department of Justice is failing to do so. This failure undermines efforts to address the urgent humanitarian crisis ongoing behind bars across the country. Our investigation has revealed that, last year alone, according to GAO analysis that I requested, the Department of Justice failed to identify at least 990 deaths in custody, nearly 1,000 uncounted deaths, and the true number is likely much higher.

We will hear today from Belinda Maley and Vanessa Fano, whose loved ones died preventably while in custody, in both cases, sons and brothers who died while they were pre-trial detainees, having been convicted of no crime. We will hear their grief and anger, a grief and anger shared by many thousands of Americans whose loved ones needlessly suffered and died while incarcerated. We will hear from Professor Andrea Armstrong of Loyola University to understand why and how DOJ's failure to oversee prisons and jails undermines Americans' civil rights. We will hear from Dr. Greta Goodwin of the Government Accountability Office, a legislative branch agency that provides investigative services to Congress, which analyzed, at my request, the death-in-custody data the DOJ collected in 2021, and who will publicly report those findings today for the first time. And we will question Ms. Maureen Henneberg, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, about the department's failure since 2019 to implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act, a failure that has undermined federal oversight of conditions in prisons and jails nationwide, and therefore undermined Americans' human and constitutional rights.

Members of Congress swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, to defend the constitutional rights of all Americans in my state and every state, including the rights of those who are incarcerated, and we are here today because what the United States is allowing to happen on our watch in prisons, jails, and detention centers nationwide is a moral disgrace. As federal legislators serving on the nation's preeminent investigative panel, it is our obligation to investigate the federal government's complicity in this disgrace. Therefore, it's our obligation to ask what tools the Department of Justice is using to protect the constitutional rights of the incarcerated, to hold the DOJ accountable when it fails to use those tools, and to furnish better more powerful tools with which the Department can defend civil rights and civil liberties.

There are some bright spots. For example, I was encouraged when Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke announced a DOJ investigation of conditions in Georgia's horrific state prisons almost one year ago today. But it has become clear in the course of this investigation that the Department is failing in its responsibility to implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act. That is, the Department is failing to determine who is dying behind bars, where they are dying, and why they are dying, and therefore failing to determine where and which interventions are most urgently needed to save lives.