No dataset tracks the number of people in prison who die at the hands of those hired to keep them safe. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that between 2012 and 2016 – the most recent data available – approximately 128 state and federal prisoners died from homicide or accidents per year. The agency does not separately report incidents involving prison staff versus prisoner-on-prisoner violence. This is also likely to be an undercount since many investigations of suspicious deaths in prison are done internally by corrections departments.
As a result, state prisons today are severely underfunded, understaffed, overcrowded and deteriorating.
‘A callous disregard’
In Florida, the state I have researched most extensively, fiscal austerity hit the Department of Corrections early, under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush, and continued long after he left office in 2007. The Miami Herald chronicled the decline. In 2012, after five years without a raise, the state cut thousands of corrections officer positions by moving from an eight- to a 12-hour shift. By 2017, the Herald reported, the state could not fill 2,500 corrections officer positions left open because of high turnover and low pay. And, in 2019, the new Florida Department of Corrections Secretary warned that years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have created a system at the brink of a “death spiral.”
The consequences of understaffing are compounded by prison overcrowding. According to an analysis by ProPublica of federal data, between 2011 and 2018, 32 states closed one or more prisons, without corresponding reductions to the state’s overall prison population. This year, as coronavirus hit, at least 16 state prison systems – in every region except the Northeast – had seriously overcrowded prisons, according to local news reports.
Prison officers’ acts of violence are often not reported. The blue code of silence that people associate with police applies equally to corrections officers. Prison staff that come forward are threatened and harassed. And, even more than police departments, prisons are not transparent. It is often only through local news media investigations that we hear these stories.
Corrections officers are rarely held accountable through civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution for their acts. The Miami-Dade County prosecutor Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who faces a real challenger in the upcoming primary for the first time since she was elected in 1993, declined to prosecute the prison officers who locked Darren Rainey in a scalding hot shower and left him there to die. The family of Rainey, a middle-age Black man with a diagnosed mental illness, later settled a civil rights lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections for $4.5 million.
Governors and state legislators have little political incentive to improve prison conditions. Sadistic, violent and other unconscionable acts by corrections officers against people in prison don’t provoke the same public outrage as police murders of people in their homes and communities. Under the system of mass incarceration, those we have marked as “criminals” are denied not only their civil rights but their humanity.