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Death in Custody

Book Review
Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth And What We Can Do about It

Roger A. Mitchell Jr., MD and Jay D. Aronson, PhD
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023
312 pages / $28.95

By Antoine Davis

It’s a simple question, one that should be easy to answer: How many people in the United States have been killed by police or died while in the custody of the criminal system?

The frustrating answer is that no one knows, because law enforcement agencies and their allies don’t want us to know, according to the authors of Death in Custody: How America Ignores the Truth and What We Can Do about It.


Roger A. Mitchell Jr. and Jay D. Aronson provide details and data about the alarming number of people who have been killed during encounters with law enforcement.


First, the details. While some were gunned down and brutally beaten by police officers, others “mysteriously” died while confined in the horrible conditions all too common in jails and prisons across the country. Yet it is rare for law enforcement agencies to be held accountable for these preventable deaths.


One of the many examples the authors present is from an investigation by Mike Masterson, a young journalist who has dedicated his career to reporting what happens in police precincts, mental health care facilities, courtrooms, jails, prisons, and medical examiners’ offices. Masterson found that in Chicago’s Harrison District police lockup, more than 20 men were declared to have died by suicide in police custody over 20 months. The majority were Black or Latinx, and seven of them had been arrested for minor crimes. According to the medical examiners, 10 had hung themselves with belts and shoelaces, and most of them had been locked up for only a few hours before they died. Despite clear signs of brutal treatment, no one was held accountable, mainly because of the medical examiners’ findings.


Second, where is the data? Mitchell and Aronson point out that one of the primary reasons for the lack of accountability is the absence of reliable information about those who have died during encounters with law enforcement. In addition, they provide compelling evidence that racist and biased ideologies have motivated medical examiners to either exclude or falsify autopsies when a death incriminates the legal system or political allies.


As it has become clear that these injustices are not anomalies, activists and journalists have pressed the criminal justice system for greater transparency and accountability, only to be met with excuses for why it can’t be done. But the authors point out that the U.S. government has been able to track every other type of death. The refusal to account for those who have died in prisons and jails, and at the hands of police, speaks to the miniscule value that law-enforcement agencies have placed on communities of color who are disproportionately being killed.

In response to this very real problem, Mitchell and Aronson call for the National Center for Health Statistics to add a check-box to death certificates for those who have died during interactions with the criminal legal system. They argue that in a democracy, citizens should be able to figure out how many people are killed during interactions with law enforcement, why they are killed, and whether training and policies can be modified to decrease the number of officer-involved deaths. Without this data, citizens won’t be able to analyze trends and demand action. The result: no accountability. Nearly all homicides committed by police are written off as “justified,” and people will continue to lose their lives, all under the narrative of protecting society from crime.


The refusal to account for those who have died in prisons and jails, and at the hands of police, speaks to the miniscule value that law-enforcement agencies have placed on communities of color who are disproportionately being killed.


This problem is hardly new. Death in Custody provides readers with the brutal history on which the U.S. criminal legal system was built. Beginning with the gruesome era following the enslavement of Black people in America, the book unpacks the history of how Blacks were lynched by White supremacists and then dehumanized by racist narratives as a means of justifying these barbaric acts of murder. When Ida B. Wells and other anti-lynching activists began to force greater awareness of these atrocities, the United States passed an anti-lynching law. But the country also held onto White supremacy, shifting from lynching Blacks to a more professionalized way of controlling and oppressing communities of color — the criminal legal system.


These days, when police shoot an unarmed person on the streets, there likely will be media coverage. On the other end of the spectrum lies the silent indifference to the wellbeing of people who are placed in their custody, especially people of color. As someone incarcerated in that system, I have witnessed firsthand this routine neglect. One example is how an incarcerated student who had been a part of a Black Prisoners Caucus educational programs in Washington state was inappropriately taken to solitary confinement.


According to prison staff, the prisoner didn’t feel safe with other prisoners in the main part of the facility. Later, that prisoner committed suicide by slitting his wrist with a razor. On the surface, one may believe the prison can bear no fault for the prisoner’s suicide, but as Mitchell and Aronson argue, negligence that leads to death is inexcusable. Solitary confinement is a place of punishment and has never been a safe place for prisoners. In addition, prisoners are supposed to be thoroughly searched before being placed in solitary confinement. Despite this negligence, no one was held accountable.


Death in Custody shows that from the late 1800s until today, people have died under the care of this same criminal legal system. This book reveals more than the obvious killings that happen at the hands of violent law enforcement officers -— it uncovers the silent deaths that result from neglectful prison staff who fail to do their jobs. The point here is clear: these unnecessary deaths will continue to occur until there is a uniform way of making our judicial system transparent and accountable for what they do and don’t do, for those in its care.

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