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Designation Of Prison Deaths As 'Natural' Raises Questions

Kesha Jackson’s husband was incarcerated in federal prison in Arkansas, and he was about to be released after 18 years. Then, Jackson got a concerning call from inmates, saying her husband was going in and out of consciousness. He died soon after. Jackson was told her husband’s manner of death was “natural,” NPR reports. When his death was deemed natural, prison authorities were not required to conduct an autopsy. It's how they characterize at least three-quarters of all federal prison deaths since 2009, yet NPR has found "natural" deaths with details that raise questions for family members. "When his medical records came home after he passed away, I saw that it was MRSA," Jackson said. MRSA is a staph infection — caused by a type of dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria. But it is not generally fatal if treated immediately.


The CDC says natural deaths happen either solely or almost entirely because of disease or old age. Yet, 70% of the inmates who died in federal prison the last 13 years were under the age of 65. After speaking to some of the families of these inmates, NPR found that potential issues such as medical neglect, poor prison conditions and a lack of health care resources were left unexplained once a "natural" death designation ended hopes of an investigation. NPR spoke with multiple families of inmates who died natural deaths who believed their loved one's death warrants scrutiny. Currently, autopsies are not required for federal prison deaths that are pronounced natural, unless deemed necessary by the warden. However, the Bureau of Prisons does submit a multilevel mortality review report to the Office of Quality Management, which is meant to summarize how the death was handled. This report is not provided to the public or the families of the inmates.

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