more than 280 Texas county jail inmates ... died from illnesses while in custody over a four-and-a-half year period, according to data provided by the Texas attorney general and analyzed by The Texas Tribune. The number of illness-related deaths in county jails comes close to the number of deaths in state penitentiaries — despite the fact that county lockups house half as many inmates, on average, and keep them for much shorter periods.
Sheriffs say that they are doing everything they can to care for people who come to them with a multitude of physical and mental illnesses that are exacerbated by drug and alcohol addiction. And, they say, they are struggling to meet the health care needs of more inmates at a time when budgets are dwindling.
There are no state standards for health care in county jails, but criminal justice advocates and correctional facility experts say the large number of illness-related deaths prove they are needed. “People aren’t dying of old age in jails,” said Michele Deitch, a jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. “Those numbers are more likely to be reflective of medical care concerns.”
The data analyzed by the Tribune related to more than 1,500 deaths that occurred in law enforcement custody statewide from January 2005 through September 2009. Nearly 500 of those deaths were inmates who were in the custody of the state’s 254 sheriff’s departments. Some were the result of high-intensity pursuits or suicides that occurred before an offender was arrested. Some happened during the course of the arrest, when a person was shot, tased or restrained by officers.
But more than half of the deaths reported by county law enforcement — 282 — happened as a result of an illness contracted before or during incarceration. Many inmates died of heart conditions; some of cancer or liver and kidney problems; and others of afflictions ranging from AIDS to seizure disorders and pneumonia.
When the state assumes custody of an individual it becomes responsible for their healthcare, which requires greater expertise and is a bigger expense than some counties are prepared to handle. Though of course he died in TDCJ, this story reminds me of Timothy Cole dying of an asthma attack, a chronic circumstance he had when he was convicted but which probably wouldn't have been fatal if he'd been in the free world with access to his family and ready medical care.