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New data provides in-depth look at deaths in Louisiana prisons, jails during COVID-19

By Loyola University on Fri, 06/16/2023 - 14:05

A new report by a Loyola New Orleans law professor provides the first analysis of deaths in Louisiana prisons and jails in 2020 and 2021, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Professor Andrea Armstrong, a leading national expert on prison conditions, today released “Louisiana Deaths Behind Bars 2015-2021,” the second in a series of analyses of the 1,168 lives lost in prisons and jails across the state since 2015. Today’s report includes additional data from 2020 and 2021 through records collected by Loyola law students as part of a seminar taught by Armstrong. All data is publicly available through Armstrong’s Incarceration Transparency database, which can be searched by facility, cause of death, and demographics such as race, sex, and age.  

In 2020 and 2021, at least 375 people died behind bars in Louisiana. The majority – 272 people – died of medical causes. COVID-19 was listed as a contributing cause of death for 48 individuals, approximately 18% of all medical deaths. Louisiana also saw an increase in the number of deaths in prisons due to drugs, suicide, and violence in 2020 and 2021.  

The 23 drug-related deaths made up 11.92% of all known deaths in 2021, a steep increase from 2015 when there were four known drug-related deaths comprising 2.31% of all known deaths that year. The number of suicides peaked in 2021, comprising 8.29% of all known deaths. Violent deaths peaked in 2020 at six, surpassing the previous high in 2016 with five violent deaths.  

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic stretches beyond the 48 deaths identified by prison and jail facilitators as COVID-related,” Armstrong said. “In response to the pandemic, prisons and jails limited or suspended visitation and educational and vocational programming while also increasing isolation within the prison to limit transmission of COVID-19. Facilities also had fewer staff members on site due to the threat of the virus. These pandemic-related changes in the prison and jail environments may have played a role in the higher numbers of death in 2020 and 2021 for non-medical causes, including deaths due to drugs, suicide, and violence.”

Here are some other highlights of the report: 

  • Among the people who died behind bars from 2015 to 2021, about 57% were Black and 40% were white. About 96% were male and the average age was 55 years old. 
  • Medical conditions were the leading cause of death during that period, particularly heart disease and cancer. Of the deaths attributed to respiratory illnesses between 2015 and 2021, nearly half occurred in 2020 and 2021. 
  • Two-thirds of all known suicides occurred in segregation, and 42% of suicides in jails occurred within four weeks of admission. 
  • Parish jails accounted for 25% of all known deaths between 2015 and 2021, compared to 71% in state-operated prisons. The majority of accidental, suicide and drug overdose deaths occurred in parish jails, while most medical deaths (more than 79%) occurred in prisons. 
  • Both prisons and jails had substantial increases in mortality rates for convicted populations in 2021. For state prisons, the convicted mortality rate in 2021 is 1.6 times higher than in 2015 and for jails, the 2021 rate is 2.2 times higher.

Armstrong noted that these data points would benefit from additional investigation and analysis due to the higher number of deaths recorded as “unknown” in 2020 and 2021 for both prisons and jails compared to prior years and the lack of uniform guidance for facility officials on identifying COVID-19 on death records. Additionally, as Armstrong testified before the U.S. Senate in 2022, several changes in federal data collection have reduced the specificity of data collected. The federal government no longer collects information on pre-existing conditions or incident locations.

“Documenting and analyzing deaths behind bars is critically important to prevent future avoidable deaths,” Armstrong said. “If we don’t understand how and why people die behind bars, it is impossible to develop prevention strategies. Deaths in custody should be rare events given 24/7 staffing, proximity to emergency healthcare, and the contained environment. So when a death behind bars occurs, our state owes the families of decedents and the public a full explanation.”

This information was collected by Loyola law students as part of the Incarceration Transparency Project, which launched in 2019. Law students in Loyola’s Technology and Legal Innovation clinic, led by Loyola Law Professor Judson Mitchell, created the database and website, which was launched in June 2021. The website is a first-of-its-kind data collection and database project exploring deaths in Louisiana prisons, jails and detention centers that is being replicated in other states to enhance transparency of federal, state, and local detention practices in other states.
The Incarceration Transparency project is an innovative new model that puts law students on the cutting edge of research, while also providing in-depth data and analysis for policymakers, advocates, and academics. Professor Armstrong released the project’s first report, “Louisiana Deaths Behind Bars 2015-2019,” in June 2021.