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Story Publication logo November 9, 2023

Here’s How We Created Pa.’s First-Ever Jail-Death Database

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Each year an untold number of people die in jails across Pa. Their stories often go untold and their...

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“Love In Action Juneteenth Rally” at the Dauphin County Prison. June 19, 2023. Image by Sean Simmers. United States.

To create Pennsylvania’s first-ever database of in-custody deaths, PennLive and the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism had to navigate a patchwork of inconsistent systems and records.

We requested records submitted to state and federal agencies, and scanned federal lawsuits and media reports to identify at least 65 people who died in Pennsylvania jails or while awaiting trial last year. The database will continue to be updated as we learn of new deaths.

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Record-keeping is inconsistent across the Commonwealth because:

  • Jails fail to report all deaths to state and federal agencies.
  • Counties deny public records requests for various reasons.
  • Agencies are successful in keeping many deaths hidden unless families file costly lawsuits and subpoena records in litigation.

Federal and state laws each require counties to report deaths of people who are in the custody of police, jails or prisons, but our investigation found three deaths that were not reported to any agency and 20 that were not reported to both.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency collects deaths-in-custody reports and submits them to the Bureau of Justice Assistance inside the U.S. Department of Justice. We submitted requests for public records to the state for deaths in 2022.

DOJ spreadsheets also include a “brief description” of a death, which can include where an individual was found and who was the first to respond, but descriptions across jails were inconsistent. Some jails submitted little to no information in the reports.

All “extraordinary occurrences” that occur within county jails are required to be reported to the Department of Corrections each month, according to Pennsylvania law. That data, however, does not include the name of the person who died. It only includes the number of deaths per facility.

PennLive and PINJ sent requests for names of people who died in jail to all counties that reported at least one death to the Department of Corrections. Most counties provided the information. But several counties either denied the request or gave information that conflicted with what they reported to DOC.

Erie County, which reported three deaths last year, and Butler County, which reported one death, did not respond to our requests.

Beaver County, which reported three deaths, responded but gave us the name of only one person who died in March.

PennLive and PINJ followed up with Beaver County Coroner David Gabauer. When asked if he could provide information on the people who died in Beaver County Jail last year, Gabauer gave a short written answer: “NO.”

In order to uncover deaths that might have not been reported to the state or federal government, PINJ and PennLive submitted public records requests to 67 counties across the commonwealth for 911 calls made from jails and for orders for release of inmates from jails to hospitals.

Sixty out of 67 counties denied requests for release orders for varying reasons. Most said the records did not exist. Northampton’s assistant county solicitor denied our request stating, “The request appears to be seeking records that contain personal health information and therefore, even if the county had the records, they would be excepted from production under the (Right To Know Law) RTKL.”

The Bedford County Correctional Facility responded with the following: “Facility records show that at no time during this period was an inmate released from a hospital while in the custody of the facility.”

Some deaths reported to the federal or state did not include the person’s cause and manner of death. According to the Pennsylvania Coroners Act, the cause and manner of death of any individual is public record.

Six jails denied requests for the cause and manner of death for individuals who died in custody.

Northumberland County denied a request citing the federal Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act, known as HIPAA. The act covers health plans, health care providers and health care clearinghouses, not coroners.

Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law adds another unintended impediment to identifying pretrial deaths. The law automatically seals low-level convictions from public view when someone remains crime-free for 10 years, but it also requires records related to charges that don’t lead to a conviction be sealed within 30 days.

This means when someone dies in jail while awaiting trial, all of their court records are hidden from public view within weeks of their death. In many cases, that means there are no courthouse records that show why the person was arrested or even that they were incarcerated.

PennLive and PINJ sought aggregate data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts on how many people had cases that were withdrawn or dropped because the person who was charged died before trial. AOPC responded by saying it had no way to accurately determine that information.

PINJ and Pennlive also obtained autopsy reports after a public records request turned into a lawsuit that forced Allegheny County to turn over the records of a man who died in its Jail in 2020. After that decision, PINJ was able to request additional autopsies from last year that previously had been hidden.

Ultimately, many of our records requests led to dead ends.

The deaths of Anthony Talotta and Paul Spisak of Allegheny County, and Joshua Patterson of Bucks County remained hidden or unreported despite the laws and requirements.

PINJ and PennLive learned of their deaths from reports outside of the government — either through families, sources working within the jail, incarcerated persons or lawsuits filed in federal court. Those sources revealed deaths that had extraordinary stories attached to them.

One note about our calculations.

The deaths of two men held pretrial in a state prison, because if specializes in hospice and long-term nursing care, were counted in our database, but not in the county rate of death calculations since they were in state custody.

Glenn Whitekettle, 61, was being held at the state prison at the request of Dauphin County when he died in December, and 68-year-old Robert Sanchuk was awaiting trial in Lackawanna County when he died at SCI Laurel Highlands in December.

Anyone with information about any deaths that occurred in Pennsylvania Jails in 2022 are asked to contact us by emailing either [email protected] or [email protected].

PennLive and PINJ were assisted by interns Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Samantha Verrelli, of Penn State University.


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