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10Investigates: Prisons, jails across Tennessee failing to properly report hundreds of inmate deaths

A 10News investigation found hundreds of deaths behind bars have gone unreported to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation since 2017.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Hundreds of deaths behind bars are going unreported to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, a 10News review of records from more than a dozen correctional agencies uncovered.

The official count — an annual report produced by the TBI under state law — shows 337 people died while in the custody of Tennessee jails and prisons from 2017 to 2020.

Documents obtained by 10News show the actual number is much higher. Local and state agencies provided records for more than 600 inmates' deaths during that timeframe.

Some took their own lives, some overdosed and others died of illness and injury. 

"We'd like to know what happened to her"

Credit: WBIR

Kelsey Wolfe battled her inner demons inside the crowded cells of the Cocke County Jail. The 29-year-old mom of two had long struggled with addiction.

"That jail knows her very, very well," said her sister, Kendra Wolfe. "She has a past."

This time, however, felt different. Kelsey's family said she finally seemed to get the upper hand on those demons. 

"I really, really think she overcame them this time," Kendra said. "(The chaplain) even said I've seen a change in her this time. She said it was just crazy how awesome she looked this time."

Five days before a judicial hearing in mid-August, deputies found Kelsey unresponsive in her cell. Investigators still haven't confirmed why or how she died, citing an open investigation and potential litigation.

"We'd like to know what happened to her," Roger Wolfe said. "It's been over two months. We'd like some answers."

A law intended to increase transparency

Credit: WBIR

In 2015, State Rep. Harold M. Love Jr., D-Nashville, said he became concerned with people dying in custody, like Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray.

He wanted to make sure all deaths in custody — during an arrest, transfer or jail/prison stay — were counted.

"You want to see if there are patterns there," he said. "The end goal of this was to make sure that our criminal justice system does have success in either releasing persons who were found innocent or jailing persons who were found guilty and also making sure those persons (are safe)."

His bill became Tenn. Code § 38-10-102 in 2017. It requires law enforcement, correctional agencies and courts to report their law enforcement-related deaths to the TBI.

That includes "the death of an individual in custody, whether in a prison, in a jail, or otherwise in the custody of law enforcement pursuant to an arrest or a transfer between institutions of any kind."

It also requires the TBI to produce an annual report on all law enforcement-related deaths that occurred in the prior calendar year. 

RELATED: 'He was too young to die' | Records show 60+ people have died in East Tennessee jails since 2016

"Nothing's getting better. It's just getting worse." 

Credit: WBIR

The TBI has released four annual reports. They show a drastic drop in inmate deaths from 2017 to 2020. 

WBIR dug into those numbers and uncovered the opposite is true: deaths in custody aren't falling. 

They're on the rise. 

"One of the challenges we have is enforcing reporting requirements," Love told 10News. "That's something we need to look at and make sure the reporting requirement lines up so that they know that they're supposed to report those types of incidents."

In 2017, the Law Enforcement-Related Deaths Report showed 87 total deaths. WBIR found 30 extra deaths, raising the total to at least 117.

In 2018, the Law Enforcement Related Deaths Report showed 148 total deaths. WBIR found 18 extra deaths, raising the total to at least 166.

In 2019, the Law Enforcement Related Deaths Report showed 65 total deaths. WBIR found 64 extra deaths, raising the total to at least 129.

In 2020, the Law Enforcement Related Deaths Report showed 37 total deaths. WBIR found 153 extra deaths, raising the total to at least 190.

"Nothing's getting better. It's just getting worse," said attorney Lance Baker, who represents multiple families — including Kelsey's — who have lost loved ones in custody. "Documenting things is going to be huge."

10News found those numbers by checking with jails in East Tennessee, the Tennessee Department of Correction and the TBI.

WBIR then compared those numbers to the annual report. The investigation showed more than 260 deaths weren't reported in accordance with state law.

"Nothing more and nothing less"

Credit: WBIR

In a statement to 10News, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it can only count deaths that agencies tell them about.

"We can only compile what they send us — nothing more and nothing less," a spokesperson said. "Our publications are a snapshot of the data at a given date and time."

Agencies could report deaths at a later date. For example, the 2020 annual report says 37 people died. 

A database provided by the TBI shows various prisons and jails later added 15 more deaths, raising the total to 52.

WBIR's investigation showed the numbers still don't add up. Records from more than a dozen correctional agencies show the actual total is at least 190 deaths.

That's more than five times as many.

The existing law might need an update

Credit: WBIR

Representative Love said he may update his original law during the legislative session that begins January 2022.

"One of the challenges we have is enforcing reporting requirements," he said. "We always want to make sure that it's not necessarily punitive, but it is supporting what they're doing."

The TBI is scheduled to begin an audit of the data included in the Law Enforcement-Related Death reports in February. That will include deaths in custody of jails and prisons, as well as use of force incidents and arrest-related non-forcible deaths.

Under the current law, the TBI said each agency is responsible for submitting its own data. 

After WBIR presented its findings to the TBI, the agency said it is reaching out to the federal government and local agencies to determine why the data is drastically different. 

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