The Monroe Correctional Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The Monroe Correctional Complex on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Unexpected’ deaths are up in Washington’s prisons

At least 29 people died unexpectedly in Washington’s state prisons from July 2022 to June 2023.

By Grace Deng / Washington State Standard

At least 29 people died unexpectedly in Washington’s state prisons from July 2022 to June 2023, according to a new state report.

That means deaths are up from the last reporting period, when the state Department of Corrections identified 11 unexpected deaths in its prisons.

The recent review, released by Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds, said the state Department of Corrections recorded 54 deaths overall in its prisons. In June 2022, Washington’s state prisons held 12,972 people, according to the Office of Financial Management.

“We would like to remind readers to bear in mind that the data and numbers reported here represent individual lives and members of our community,” the report said.

The Office of the Corrections Ombuds said it is “particularly concerned” about two of the top causes of unexpected deaths: overdoses and suicides. Ten people died of overdoses, six people died by suicide and six people died due to vascular disease — conditions affecting the blood vessels.

Three of the six suicides occurred in the same week at Washington State Penitentiary. The report also said deaths by overdose and suicide in state prisons “continued to rise after the close of the reporting period.”

These numbers do not include deaths in Washington’s local jails, which have some of the highest fatality rates in the country.

The Legislature passed a law in 2021 mandating fatality reviews in both jails and prisons after an incarcerated person at Washington State Penitentiary, Michael Boswell, died from skin cancer. His death came after prison medical staff rebuffed his treatment requests for months.

After every unexpected death in a state prison, the Department of Corrections is required to consider recommendations put forth by a multi-agency committee in order to prevent future deaths. Of the 63 planned reforms, the ombuds office was able to verify that 56 have been completed.

Among the recommendations made by the report, the office urged the Department of Corrections to provide universal substance use disorder treatment and promote the state’s 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline inside prisons.

“We remain hopeful that the recommendations set forth by this Committee will help to prevent future loss of life,” the report said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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