Death Sentence is a Traverse City Record-Eagle data reporting project examining in-custody deaths in Michigan’s local jails through the collection and analysis of 10 years of reports and investigative materials.

Thanks to generous support from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Record-Eagle Editor Nathan Payne spent most of 2019 and the first months of 2020 filing Freedom of Information Act requests in all 83 Michigan counties. Thousands of pages of records, and the data gleaned from them, resulted in the most comprehensive public accounting of how and why people die in Michigan’s local lockup facilities.

Records collected and made public through our reporting process are a direct reflection of Michigan’s inconsistent, oft nonexistent oversight of local jails. In Michigan, no central authority investigates deaths in local jails, and local jail operators often produce no more than internal incident reports in response to in-custody deaths.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics collects voluntarily submitted data on in-custody deaths from local jails, but publicly releases only general statistics about deaths in each state. The DOJ has denied both a FOIA request and an administrative appeal from the Record-Eagle seeking the forms used to generate the agency’s data. The latest numbers released by the agency cover 2016, and do not include any county-by-county information.

The Record-Eagle's data and underlying public records are available on the newspaper's website searchable by county.

The stories published as part of Death Sentence are the product of a team of journalists including Payne, data journalist Kaye LaFond, and Record-Eagle reporters Patti Burgess, Brooke Kansier and Mardi Link. Throughout 2020, Record-Eagle reporters will compile and fact-check data, and report the trends and issues related to deaths in Michigan’s local jails.