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Project January 14, 2021

Dying for Justice in America's Jails

Authors:
An armed guard surveys the grounds from the railing of a prison watchtower. Image by RealWindowCreative/shutterstock. Undated.
An armed guard surveys the grounds from the railing of a prison watchtower. Image by RealWindowCreative/shutterstock. Undated.

Recent decarceration efforts across the US in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to no discernible uptick in crime. Instead, these releases, as well as the rash of preventable COVID-19 deaths in jails and prisons, have had the unintended effect of exposing an already widespread and underreported reality — that death by suicide, brutality, and medical neglect in our nation's jails is far from new or specific to this pandemic, and that many of the victims of these deaths posed no danger to society in the first place.

Our stories will differ from other recent coronavirus jail coverage by taking a deep look at the underlying problems that—even before the pandemic—killed an average of more than a thousand people a year in U.S. jails (an average of three people a day), mostly due to suicides, homicides (often at the hands of staff), overdoses, and medical negligence. They will combine data with individual human stories to show how and why local jails became, quite literally, death traps.

This five-part investigative series will use a solutions journalism lens by coupling stories of horrific, preventable deaths with stories that demonstrate better ways to address these underlying issues. We will look at alternatives to incarceration, models that save lives instead of taking them, such as diversion programs, collaborative courts, bail reform, restorative justice, community policing, and respite houses. These are the jail diversion programs that have become the incubators of solutions to society's underlying problems of mental illness and addiction that, if scaled, would ensure that our jails never return to business-as-usual once this crisis is over.

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