About 1,000 Americans die in jail every year. Although the federal government collects data on jail deaths, it only publishes that data years later, and in aggregate, making it impossible to identify facilities that have particularly high death rates. In any given year, the vast majority of the thousands of jails in the United States do not report a single death.
“It’s a national scandal that we have so little information about people who die in state custody,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “I don’t know of any other developed country where it’s really impossible to say how many people died in jails and prisons in a given year.”
Earlier this year, The Huffington Post sought to fill the gap by tracking jail deaths from July 13, 2015, to July 13, 2016, the year following the high-profile death of 28-year-old Sandra Bland in a Texas jail. Unlike prisons, jails typically hold people for only short periods and most of their inmates have not been convicted of a crime. Although HuffPost’s list remains incomplete, it uncovered hundreds of deaths that were never reported in the media. Using this data of more than 800 deaths, HuffPost crunched the numbers to identify outliers, focusing on jails where three or more people died over the year — more than 40 facilities — and comparing those deaths to the jail’s average daily inmate population reported in 2013 or later. In some cases, jails were contacted directly to obtain the most current inmate population.
HuffPost identified 15 jails that had death rates more than double the last available national average, which is 135 deaths a year per 100,000 inmates. St. Louis County Justice Center was in the top 10, with six deaths from July 13, 2015 to July 13, 2016. Two more deaths have happened inside the jail since then, according to the justice center.
People who died in St. Louis County Justice Center from July 13, 2015 to July 13, 2016 include: Cedric Dunn, Cordney Dvore Buck, Markus L. Scruggs, Sherron Dale, Drexel Starks and Mark Patton.
Dale, 42, reported to the jail last October to serve a 90-day sentence on a drug charge. He was found dead in his cell less than two weeks later.
Dale died of a relatively common medical condition, a peptic ulcer, according to the St. Louis County medical examiner. Peptic ulcers are easily treated, usually with antibiotics and an acid reducer, according to medical experts consulted by HuffPost. But an untreated one would have caused severe pain for several days leading up to his death, and it would have been nearly impossible for him to sleep. Records indicated that Dale last had contact with a corrections officer at 11 p.m. on Oct. 14 according to the medical examiner’s report, and wasn’t found until 6:50 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2015. Jail records provided to The Huffington Post, which were heavily redacted, make it unclear what, if any, medical treatment Dale was provided.
St. Louis County officials did not respond to specific questions about Dale’s case but said “most” of the six deaths at their facility were the result of “long-term drug abuse.” Peptic ulcers, however, are common, treatable and not linked to drug abuse. Also, the medical examiner’s report found no trace of illegal drugs.
Dale’s mother, Jeanette, called the chief medical examiner, Mary Case, to find out more about what happened to her son. Case told her the peptic ulcer was “a treatable condition,” according to medical examiner records. Case also told Jeanette that she “did not have opinions about any treatment [Sherron] received,” according to the report.
“Why they never checked on him in all that time?” Jeanette told HuffPost.
After serving four months in St. Louis County’s jail, 36-year-old Markus Scruggs was found dead inside the jail’s infirmary after suffering from a seizure on April 7. After Scruggs was first suspected of having a seizure by his cellmate, the jail’s physician advised Scruggs be transported to the infirmary instead of the hospital. While in the infirmary, Scruggs was last seen alive by the nurse at 1 a.m. One hour and a half later, when the nurse went to check on him again, Scruggs was found on the floor, lying on his stomach. CPR was conducted and 911 was called. Scruggs was pronounced dead at 3:18 a.m., according to the medical examiner’s report. No drugs, aside from an anti-seizure medication was found in Scrugg’s blood screen.
‘One too many’
“One death in our jail is one too many,” Cordell Whitlock, director of communications for the county’s executive office, said in a statement.
Morbidity and mortality reviews are conducted after each death by a multidisciplinary team from Department of Justice Services and Department of Public Health to determine if any changes to policy and/or procedures are needed, Whitlock said. In regard to suicides, he said all sheets and blankets have been removed from high risk areas and been replaced by suicide resistant sleeping bags and blankets, which are extremely difficult to tear. Air vents within cells have been replaced with louvered vents to reduce the likelihood of inmates to be able to fasten anything to vents. Risk assessments are also being updated to identify persons during admission screening so that they may be closely observed, Whitlock said
Herbert Bernsen, director of St. Louis County Justice Center, said after every death at the facility, meetings are held with jail officials and St. Louis County’s Department of Health to see how to prevent it from happening again.
“Every death is certainly tragic,” Bernsen told HuffPost. “Unfortunately, there have been some that we haven’t been able to prevent. But we do look at all them. And we do try to reduce all that we can.”
St. Louis County’s jail had almost 52,000 bookings over the last two years and more than 23,000 people were in jail at one time or another during that period. As of Dec. 6, St. Louis County jail’s inmate population was 1,199 with 251 employed correctional officers in the facility – a ratio of 4.7 inmates for every one correction officer. To put that in context, Missouri state prisons had a 6.3 ratio in 2010, while New York state had a 3.0 ratio, according to the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
St. Louis County Department of Public Health employs 60 licensed medical staffers. Additionally, there are three contracted employees from St. Louis University.
The starting pay for correctional officers at the jail is $15.27 and after a six-month probation period, it goes up to then $15.65. Starting pay for nurses is $19 (LPN) and $26.19 (RN).
Currently serving time inside the justice center is 49-year-old Linell Brinson, who has been detained since 2015 for passing a bad check for over $500. During a sit-down interview with HuffPost, Brinson said he was physically assaulted by two correctional officers while handcuffed and one correction officer allegedly told him “your life means nothing.”
Brinson told HuffPost, “It’s terrible how you’re treated in here.”
Huffington Post reporters Ryan J. Reilly and Dana Liebelson contributed to this report.