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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Landmark Investigation Spotlights Inmates Dying Before Their Day In Court

Light in prison cell
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Jails in many parts of the Mountain West have high rates of inmate deaths, according to a recent investigation by Reuters. The landmark project analyzed data from 2008 to 2019 in large jails across the nation. Montana, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico all had death rates higher than the national average.

In a lengthy and arduous process involving public records requests for each state surveyed, reporters uncovered information long concealed by the U.S. government.

One big takeaway: At least two-thirds of the inmates had not been convicted of a crime and were still waiting for their trial or day of arraignment.

"So they're innocent and dying in jail, and often in jail because they can't pay bail," said Reuters data journalist Grant Smith.

Smith said the investigation lays bare another "distressing finding": Most people are dying of medical conditions, addiction issues or suicide. Accidents and homicides were uncommon causes, he said.

There are several variables to consider, though, Smith said. For example, low inmate populations in Mountain West states could skew the data somewhat. His team avoided ranking jails. Instead they calculated the rate per capita of deaths in each jail and state surveyed so that people could study those numbers. Still, every death is a tragedy, he said.

"A high rate is an indicator – folks should say, 'OK, what's going on? Are we doing the best we can?'"

People that are in jail are community members, after all, Smith said.

The report's findings mirror one thing we already know about incarceration, which is that people of color are disproportionately affected.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the investigation looked at all 50 states but it did not include data for Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont and Alaska.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I am an Investigative Reporter with KUNC's investigative desk. I'm interested in our region's appetite and aversion to equity, whether that's in housing, healthcare, education, politics or policy.
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