How Many People Die in Police Custody in America?

This month has seen at least six women of color die while in custody—but some statistics show that such incidents are sadly not rare.

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Jul 30 2015, 11:55am

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The tragic, confusing, and politically volatile death of Black Lives Matter activist Sandra Bland has shifted some of the recent media focus away from deaths involving street-level law enforcement officers, and toward the horrors that can occur behind bars. Bland's death was officially ruled a suicide by hanging, but an investigation into "lingering questions" is ongoing.

Stories of other women dying in police custody have been cropping up these past few weeks. With Monday's report of a 43-year-old woman named Raynette Turner dying mysteriously in a Westchester County, New York, jail, the issue seemed impossible to ignore. Is this an epidemic that is only getting worse? Are more women of color dying in police custody than usual?

Sandra Bland was found hanging in a Hempstead, Texas jail cell on July 13, three days after being cuffed and arrested during a traffic stop for failing to indicate a turn. A week before, on July 6, a young Lakota woman named Sarah Lee Circle Bear was reportedly found dead in a jail cell in Aberdeen, South Dakota. The day after Bland's death, there was another death by apparent suicide of an 18-year-old Black Lives Matter protester named Kindra Chapman, who had been arrested at a demonstration in Homewood, Alabama, for allegedly stealing a cellphone. Joyce Curnell, a 50-year-old who had been arrested for shoplifting in Charleston County, South Carolina, was found dead in a jail cell on July 22. Earlier this week, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a woman named Ralkina Jones, who had been arrested after a fight with her husband, died in custody. Jones had been suffering from medical conditions that had been "documented during her intake process and she was administered her prescribed medication as directed," according to Cleveland Heights Police.

These deaths are tragic, but the sad truth is that these sorts of incidents happen routinely. In 2012, the latest year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics' Deaths in Custody Reporting Program has released data, 4,309 people died while being held in local jails or state prisons. In local jails, where there were 958 deaths—an 8 percent increase from 2011—the number-one cause of death was suicide.


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In total, 122 women died in local jails in 2012, or about ten per month—which means, depressingly, that if the six women mentioned above were the only women who died in custody in July, that wouldn't be unusual. (All of the women mentioned died in jail rather than in prison.)

We spoke to Jamira Burley, an Amnesty senior campaigner about the issue. She told VICE of the need for "transparency," and "independent investigations from outside of police departments to look into those matters," but added, "We haven't done an independent study on deaths in police custody."

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