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Jailhouse deaths allegedly hidden


UCLA researchers have claimed that the cause of death for increasing numbers of otherwise healthy Black and Latino men in Los Angeles County jails is being deliberately misclassified as natural or undetermined, usually to hide beatings administered by guards.

Their report–”Evaluating the Autopsies of 59 Deaths in Los Angeles County Jails, 2009-2019”–alleges that the majority of deaths of young Black and Latino men in jail are at the hands of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) guards through physical violence, mistreatment of the mentally ill or the result of medical negligence.

The 59 autopsies studied by researchers reveal that the majority suffered physical violence, said Dr. Terence Keel, principal investigator of UCLA’s BioCritical Studies Lab, which co-authored the report.

Of the 292 reported deaths of men and women of all races in the county jail system for the 10-year period, researchers were allowed access to the medical records of just 59 inmates.

The report’s overall conclusions of racial bias, excess violence against inmates and misclassification of causes of death for those who died were extrapolated from the documents researchers were able to study, Keel said.

A detailed request for comment sent to the LASD’s media office as requested was not immediately answered.

“Autopsies are the single most important source of information about people who die in the custody of law enforcement,’’ Keel said during a virtual press briefing, adding that this suggests a conflict of interest “because the people who are in charge of the inmates give the information on their deaths.’’

Report co-author Nick Shapiro, a UCLA assistant professor and director of the Carceral Ecologies Lab, said security holds placed by the LASD, the L.A. County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner or the District Attorney’s Office blocked access to records in the remaining deaths. Although many of the deaths investigated by researchers were classified as natural, “unnatural forces may have played a role,’’ Shapiro said.

“It’s a pattern that’s all too often repeated, yet most autopsy reports have not been released to the public because of ‘security holds,’’’ Keel added.

The report alleges that Black and Latino men in custody are being killed “by a system that covers up their brutal deaths and then closes a blind eye to official reports being filed that are erroneous and deem these deaths natural or from undetermined causes. More than 75 percent of the people in the study died before standing trial.’’

In the context of the L.A. County jail system, the report’s authors say they found that the culture inside the walls is one of racial bias, violence and abuse, lack of accountability and conflict of interest.