Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Liman Center Panel Discusses Deaths in Custody

Prison bars at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola

Camp J at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Photo: Andrea Armstrong ’07

Recent deaths of people detained at Rikers Island, the Baltimore City jail complex, and the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison have spurred renewed concern, research, and advocacy on conditions behind bars. Yet long before the current crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19, disease and death were constant threats to people in jails, prisons, and detention centers, many have noted. 

To explore what has happened and can happen to halt the debilitation and death of people detained by the government, the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law hosted the virtual panel discussion Deaths in Custody: 1980s–2020s on Nov. 3, 2021. The event featured Andrea Armstrong ’07, Law Visiting Committee Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans, and Homer Venters, Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor at the School of Global Public Health at New York University. Liman Center Director and Visiting Professor of Law Jenny Carroll and Arthur Liman Professor of Law Judith Resnik co-moderated the panel. The Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy, and Yale Law School Defenders co-sponsored the event.

WATCH: “Deaths in Custody” Panel


Opening the panel, Resnik cited the 2017 National Association of Medical Examiners Position Paper: Recommendations for the Definition, Investigation, Postmortem Examination, and Reporting of Deaths in Custody. She defined deaths in custody as “the loss of life in relationship to contact or encounters with government officials who are acting under the color of law, state or federal or otherwise.”

Resnik noted the connection between the issue of deaths in custody and Arthur Liman ’57, for whom the Liman Center is named. In 1985, the Mayor of the City of New York appointed Liman to investigate the Medical Examiner Office’s treatment of deaths in police custody. A series of tragedies prompted the inquiry, including the death of graffiti artist and activist Michael Stewart from an injury while in the custody of transit police. Liman’s report concluded that while the allegations of wrongdoing against the Chief Medical Examiner were unfounded, his office was “plagued by mutual mistrust and factionalism” and engaged in “unwise practice and policy” that preceded the then medical examiner’s tenure.

Resnik pointed to a 2021 series of in-depth articles in The New York Times on present-day deaths in custody, which are disproportionately Black men and women and other people of color.

“It’s time to talk about it and see what more can be done to end … these awful practices,” she said. 

Next, Venters, a physician and epidemiologist, provided an overview of the issues. As the former Chief Medical Officer for New York City’s jails, he has conducted approximately 150 investigations of people who have died behind bars. In these investigations, he evaluates whether the deceased person received the proper medical standard of care and if conditions behind bars contributed to their death.

“Those clinical questions are essential to understand how the experience of incarceration impacts the outcome of death,” he said. 

Venters said there was often transparency but not accountability in New York City’s jails.

“If it’s a death, there is great infrastructure, great sophistication in … [making] those outcomes … the responsibility of the person who suffered them,” he added.

Venters gave as an example a person known to be diabetic who doesn’t get insulin and develops complications. The medical examiner’s report might say the person died of natural causes. The system has then absolved itself of responsibility, even though it clearly played a major role in the person dying, Venters said. 

He said that in the facilities he goes into now, there is devastation from COVID-19 and the “wholesale departure” of staff.

“Many of you have seen some of the horrific pictures or heard of the horrific conditions in Rikers Island in the last couple of months because of a combination of a deteriorating physical plant and a lack of staff that’s playing out in so many parts of the country,” Venters said.

He predicted a dramatic increase in mortality behind bars in the next few years due to COVID-19 and the lack of “operational competence” of these places.

Armstrong discussed her project Incarceration Transparency, which publicly shares data and research to address significant harms from conditions of incarceration. In the project’s first year, her students researched deaths in custody in Louisiana. To gather information, students filed public records requests on every facility where people are incarcerated in the state. They found that, from 2015–2019, 786 people had died behind bars in Louisiana. They learned that the leading causes of death of those people were medical illness, followed by suicide. 

The second part of Armstrong’s project is a series of profiles of people who died while incarcerated. These profiles each memorialize one person to show what families, friends, and communities lose when someone dies behind bars. To write the stories of those who died in custody, Armstrong’s students examined public records, interviewed family members, and conducted other research.

Without these details, “so often what we know is only the fact that they died … [and] what their criminal charge was,” she said.

Armstrong also reflected on why deaths in custody matter. She spoke about Narada “Rada” Mealey, one person memorialized in the series. 

“We know that he was a father to a young child and that the day he was brought into the jail, based on a misdemeanor arrest — in fact, it was an outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor arrest,” she said. “He had just taken a test for the Orleans Parish Civil Service for a new job that he really thought was going to set him on a new track.”

Armstrong touched on a myriad of factors that contribute to deaths in custody, including lack of oversight of the practices in jails and prisons, a failure to protect individual rights, the vulnerability of incarcerated people, and the use of solitary confinement. She asked the audience to think about why critical recommendations raised in Arthur Liman’s 1985 report have not yet been part of the practices in today’s prisons, jails, and youth detention centers.

Fred Davis, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Arthur Liman on the 1985 report, emphasized the importance of lowering the number of people in jail. 

Carroll spoke about a part of the 1985 report that struck her. She noted that Arthur Liman wrote that public suspicion of how deaths in custody were examined and classified by the medical examiner “may well reflect frustration over how police brutality cases are investigated and prosecuted.” Carroll added that “it’s important to keep in mind that we’re not just talking about folks in custody, but interactions with individuals who bring those people into custody.”

Audience member Roger Mitchell, Chair of the Department of Pathology at Howard University College of Medicine and co-author of the position paper that Resnik cited earlier, provided insights from his experience as Chief Medical Examiner for the District of Columbia. He stressed that using the U.S. Standard Certificate of Death is important for data collection by the CDC and local health departments because this document records causes of death in a standardized and objective way. 

Armstrong again raised the issue of a lack of public trust. 

“If the public does not trust that we are doing our job impartially and fairly, then it leads to all types of repercussions in terms of not just the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office but also around the role of policing in our communities and our faith in our criminal legal system,” she said.

The panel took place as a change in how federal data on deaths in custody is collected approaches. This data has been collected under the aegis of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Department of Justice. A shift is underway to move the process to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, also part of the Department of Justice. But the information that would be collected would be even more limited than it is now, according to the Liman Center. 

To call for improved data collection, Resnik welcomed collaboration, cross-disciplinary work, and conversation beyond the panel discussion.

“We are quite serious about trying to figure out what we can do to generate better information about an awful topic,” Resnik said. 

The Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law promotes access to justice and the fair treatment of individuals and groups seeking to use the legal system. Through research projects, teaching, fellowships, and colloquia, the Liman Center supports efforts to bring about a more just legal system.