ACLU research project seeks to discover why Missourians are dying behind bars

“Death-In-Custody and Maternal Health Project” seeks stories in aim to find policy and legal solutions

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – A new, special project undertaken by the ACLU of Missouri will focus on researching, collecting and investigating stories of people who have died while incarcerated in Missouri jails and prisons. The project will place special emphasis on in-custody infant deaths related to their mother’s health care.

The ACLU of Missouri is interested in speaking with family members, loved ones and friends of those who have died while incarcerated in Missouri jails or prisons.

“When people come in contact with the criminal justice system, there is an intake process to determine a person’s medical and mental health concerns while incarcerated,” said Elaine Sutton, ACLU of Missouri legal support coordinator. “There may be things that could’ve been addressed during that process that may have been minimized or overlooked, resulting in unnecessary and untimely deaths.”

Ninety-seven people died in state and federal prison facilities in Missouri in 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, a 58 percent increase from deaths in 2001.

The ACLU of Missouri receives about 2,200 complaints a year from Missourians regarding their constitutional rights and civil rights violations. A significant number of these complaints involve the reporting of deaths-in-custody.

From the call-ins received and in-person interviews, the project hopes to identify and examine systemic patterns and institutional practices that may factor into the deaths of people in custody. The organization is working with two students from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis on this project.

The ACLU of Missouri hopes to look at what is happening, why the deaths are occurring and if it is a systemic issue. These factors will determine policy recommendations, as well as legal intervention strategies.

“This is a humanity issue,” said Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri legal director. “Just because a person is incarcerated does not mean they are subjected to less-than-thorough examinations of their needs.”

A report of findings and recommendations will be developed at the end of the project.