Sen. Ossoff Launches Inquiry into Causes of Deaths in Federal Custody

In 2022, Sen. Ossoff led a 10-month bipartisan investigation that uncovered nearly 1,000 uncounted deaths in state and local custody in 2021

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff is launching an inquiry into deaths that occur in Federal custody.

This week, Sen. Ossoff, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights, launched an inquiry with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) into how the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) determines and reports the cause of death for people who have died in Federal custody.

“[The Department of Justice] is responsible for the care of individuals in its custody, whether in prisons, awaiting trial, or during the course of arrest,” Sen. Ossoff wrote. “The vast majority of deaths in federal custody occur while individuals are under the care of DOJ components, specifically the [Bureau of Prisons (BOP)] and U.S. Marshals Service (USMS). A comprehensive understanding of how these agencies determine manner of death is essential. It can help ensure the Department is doing everything it can to protect and care for individuals in its custody and provide accurate information to families.”

Each year, hundreds of individuals die in Federal custody. In fiscal year 2021, Federal agencies reported that roughly 80 percent of deaths that occurred in their custody were from natural causes or illnesses.

However, recent NPR reporting highlighted that, in documenting deaths as natural, DOJ agencies like the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service may be ignoring circumstances such as medical neglect and poor prison conditions. According to NPR, “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.”

In 2022, the Intercept reported on the 2017 death of 26-year-old Kedric Buie at U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta, highlighting that his death was reported as “of natural causes” related to a heart attack, despite autopsy report findings that he had experienced blunt trauma to his head, torso, and left lower extremity.

As part of his inquiry, Sen. Ossoff requested GAO examine how Federal agencies — such as the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service — determine the cause of death for individuals in their care, how Federal agencies notify family members about the death of a loved one, and more.

Sen. Ossoff continues working to improve public safety and improve oversight of Federal agencies.

In 2022, Sen. Ossoff led a 10-month bipartisan investigation that uncovered the DOJ failed to count at least 1,000 deaths in state and local custody in 2021 alone that had been publicly reported elsewhere. Sen. Ossoff’s bipartisan probe found the DOJ has failed to properly implement the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), a law requiring DOJ to collect data from states about the deaths of prisoners in their custody to ensure transparency and help the Department identify potential violations of civil or human rights.

In 2022, Sen. Ossoff also introduced the bipartisan Family Notification of Death, Injury, or Illness in Custody Act of 2022 alongside Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), which would help ensure family members are notified in a timely and compassionate manner about any health challenges of loved ones while in custody. 

Last April, Sens. Ossoff, Mike Braun (R-IN) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the bipartisan Federal Prison Oversight Actto establish new, independent oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

In 2022, Sen. Ossoff also passed into law his bipartisan Prison Camera Reform Act to reduce violence and civil rights abuses in America’s prisons.

Click here to read Sen. Ossoff’s inquiry.

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