Regular readers know this blog seldom considers death-penalty topics unless a case intersects with other issues I routinely cover like innocence, forensic errors or prosecutor misconduct. By contrast, to read most MSM sources, both opinion and news, you'd think that what happens in Texas' execution chamber is the single most important life-or-death issue facing the criminal-justice system. Taking a step back from that myopic view, however, since 2005, roughly one person per day died in custody in Texas, Grits had earlier reported. Only a tiny fraction of those died from lethal injection.
Now that the year is winding down, it can be said that the state of Texas will have executed ten people in 2014, which is the lowest number since 1996, according to the Dallas Observer's Unfair Park blog. To put that number in context, 592 souls overall, including those ten who were executed, perished so far in 2014 while in custody of Texas law enforcement, either at the hands of police, in local county jails or, most frequently (400 of them), in custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Here are the 2014 figures (see the full excel file for all agencies) so far for some of the larger local departments.
2014 Deaths in Custody, Various Departments
The Attorney General does not place more detailed death-in-custody reports online, a policy contrary to transparency which, IMO, the new AG should immediately change in light of local, state and national calls for police accountability. So without a lot of extra work filing open records requests, these topline data are what's available.Austin PD: 3
Travis Sheriff: 3
Dallas PD: 13
Dallas Sheriff: 8
San Antonio PD: 19
Bexar Sheriff: 8
Houston PD: 18
Harris Sheriff: 17
Fort Worth PD: 3
Tarrant Sheriff: 5
El Paso PD: 3
El Paso Sheriff: 6
If one were to Google the names of the ten people executed this year you'd find numerous press accounts on each of them, in-depth habeas corpus pleadings and carefully considered findings of fact by various trial courts and (less carefully considered) vetting by Texas appellate courts, plus review through a federal appellate process which has not been shy about bench slapping Texas courts when their bloodthirsty predilections exceed their constitutional authority as interpreted by the US Supreme Court.
By contrast, most of the other 582 on the AG's 2014 death-in-custody list died relatively anonymously, perhaps with a brief notice in a local paper, perhaps not. But for the most part, nobody marched in the streets like they did after recent incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island. The press and the public treated most deaths as routine inevitabilities. Many of the episodes at PDs are shootings or other killings in the field while taking suspects into custody; Sheriffs' numbers are more likely to represent deaths in the county jail.
But the truly surprising data come from TDCJ, where the number of deaths in custody has skyrocketed since the Legislature dramatically cut health care staff in 2011 and attempted to shift health care costs to inmate families. Some at TDCJ were old men who died at the end of long sentences. But that doesn't explain the remarkable, recent uptick. Following the 2011 budget cuts, TDCJ witnessed more than a three-fold rise in in-custody deaths:
Grits can't prove it, yet, but I personally believe the increase in deaths at TDCJ resulted from inferior healthcare due to understaffing from the 2011 budget and staffing cuts. TDCJ has told the Legislature it needs a $175 million budget boost for health care in the next biennium just to meet "minimum standards," a situation exacerbated by the state's decision not to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, which would have brought up to an additional $240 million to TDCJ from the feds for prisoner hospital care.
Will anyone march in the streets because of these hundreds of likely unnecessary prisoner deaths the way they did over Michael Brown or Eric Garner? Apparently not. Will east-coast donors obsessed with the death penalty look at these data and shift their spending toward reforming the parts of the justice system which are killing the most people? Don't hold your breath. Not all deaths at the hands of the state, it would seem, are created equal.
This blog takes a utilitarian view. There are perhaps a dozen or more advocacy groups and nonprofits, big and small, and hundreds of activists statewide devoted to death-penalty abolition, a cause with which I don't even 100% agree on first principles. (I happen to believe there are people in the world who need killing.) But scarce few of those principled folk seem to care about the other 98+% of deaths in custody, especially those in prison. If you believe the state shouldn't kill, it hardly makes a difference to the deceased whether it kills via the executioner's poison, a policeman's bullet, or medical neglect by the prison system. Looking at the raw numbers, it's hard to avoid a jaundiced reaction to people chanting "the whole world is watching" at an abolitionist protest - which again, deals with ten or so executions per year - while those same individuals and all the press covering their antics largely ignore the hundreds of bodies racking up elsewhere in the system.
The data on in-custody deaths at TDCJ are dramatic enough to warrant not just review by the Texas Legislature when it convenes in 2015, but maybe even the feds. Ideally, they wouldn't wait until there are crowds of chanting protesters in the street. There needs to be an independent review of why deaths in TDCJ tripled so rapidly and, if I'm right the budget and staffing cuts are to blame, the state will have set itself up for a doozy of a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit.
DATA NOTE: 2014 data are a running total and were accurate at time of posting; a couple more deaths have already been added to the list today.
UPDATE: TDCJ says reporting change explains death in custody statistics.