A six-month investigation by PennLive and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that there is severe undercounting of deaths in Pennsylvania jails. The undercounting is due in part to county governments circumventing the requirements to report deaths by releasing jail residents before they die, in addition to county coroners refusing to provide the names of people who died while in custody of local jails — despite state law that makes that information public. The investigation identified at least 65 deaths in custody across the state last year, but only about 40 were reported as required. “We have a moral and legal obligation to document and investigate every single death in custody in order to acknowledge the dignity of the person who died, to develop strategies and policies to minimize future deaths in custody, and to hold responsible parties — whether they be individuals or institutions — accountable when they have behaved in a negligent manner,” said Jay Aronson, co-author of the book “Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do about It.”
Getting to the truth in jail deaths is costly. When a family can’t afford to hire a lawyer to investigate, that means the public doesn’t get to find out the truth in those cases, either. One Pa. attorney estimated a typical jail death case costs between $15,000 and $30,000 to obtain records, retain forensic medical experts, understand family history, and piece together a narrative of how someone died in custody. As part of their investigation, PennLive and PINJ created the first statewide database of jail deaths, which will continue to be updated.