LANSING, Mich. -- The Michigan Department of Corrections has acknowledged errors in its counts of state prison deaths after a newspaper investigation revealed the agency hasn't been accurately or consistently tracking the deaths as it is federally mandated to do.
The Detroit Free Press' analysis of open records comes as Michigan's prisoners are dying at the highest rate in at least 25 years.
Michigan reported to the federal government that there were 135 deaths in the state's prisons last year. It's the highest number of state prison deaths reported since 2009, when 148 Michigan prisoners died.
But Michigan's prison population has dropped by roughly 7,000 inmates since then, so the state last year also saw the highest rate of prison deaths since at least 1994, according to records sent to the Department of Justice.
State lawmakers have no way of knowing about the spike because the state's Corrections Department hasn't published its 2018 statistical report, which includes the count, on its website yet, according to the newspaper.
The investigation also found that since 2016, the agency has excluded some deaths from its reporting to the Legislature without notifying lawmakers. The department used to classify all deaths under the category of a "critical incident" but decided three years ago to stop counting deaths that prison officials deem to be the result of terminal illness.
The most recent annual report on critical incidents said there were only 44 prison deaths across Michigan last year, five of which were reported to have occurred at the overcrowded Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti. The women's prison is at the center of a lawsuit following a scabies outbreak that took more than a year for officials to diagnose and properly treat.
The newspaper's investigation found discrepancies in the department's reporting of deaths at the women's prison.
Spokesman Chris Gautz confirmed Wednesday that there were 10 deaths at the prison last year.
Gautz said that the Corrections Department's reports submitted to the federal government are accurate. But he acknowledged that some of the prison death counts in the agency's annual reports from 2013 through 2017 were incorrect.
Gautz said a combination of errors caused some deaths to be counted twice, while others weren't counted at all.
The department didn't have an explanation for the increase in deaths last year. Gautz suggested that it could be an anomaly, pointing to an aging prison population and an increase in cancer, cardiac and respiratory-related deaths.
But advocates are raising concerns about the state prison death discrepancies.
Lois Pullano, founder of the Corrections Department's family advisory board, said families need to know about prison deaths to determine if investigations are needed.
"These are people's lives, not just the one who passed on, but families impacted out here in our communities, some with children involved," Pullano said. "These families deserve answers."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com