‘He just wanted to go home’ - A California woman wants change in the U.S. prison system after her brother died in custody

Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 9:26 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Some deaths in jails and prisons are going unreported according to a new Senate report. An oversight investigation found that data crucial to painting a picture as to how those in custody are treated has been missing for years.

“He was scared. And he just wanted to go home,” said Vanessa Fano from Reseda, Calif.

Fano’s brother Jonathan suffered a mental breakdown a couple of years ago in Baton Rouge, LA. She says instead of treatment, her brother was arrested. Vanessa says her brother tried to take his life as soon as he reached his cell. He would plead for help but had little access to communication with Vanessa and her family. Eventually, Jonathan hung himself inside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

“The doctor said your brother is not there anymore. He’s gone. He died when he hung himself,” said Fano.

Vanessa told a Senate Committee her story Tuesday, hoping something will change in the prison system.

Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) led an investigation with the help of the Government Accountability Office into deaths in prisons and jails. The resulting report found the Justice Department failed to correctly implement the 2013 Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), leading to a lapse in data collection, including nearly a thousand uncounted prison or jail-related deaths in 2021 alone.

“There’s urgency that the department fix this,” said Ossoff.

Ossoff brought his report to a Senate hearing room Tuesday where he confronted the Department of Justice, asking how these mistakes were made.

“Were these results concerning to the Department of Justice?” asked Ossoff.

“It’s very concerning that there is the underreporting,” said Maureen Henneberg, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Operations and Management at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Henneberg acknowledged the importance of the data that stems from the DCRA: identifying problems with incarceration in America, specifically how and why deaths happen. But Henneberg says the law’s reporting system at the state and local levels need reevaluation to help with accuracy.

“The states have no leverage to compel their local agencies to report the data,” said Henneberg.

Change will not bring Vanessa’s brother back. But she says there is hope for others.

“It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to touch. But it has to be said or else other families will have the same thing over and over again,” said Fano.

The bipartisan report concludes by saying Congress should continue to monitor DOJs implementation efforts.