The question “What happens when you die?” isn’t just a spiritual and philosophical one. It’s also a practical concern.
What happens to a person’s body when they die in particular circumstances? For example, you might be wondering what happens when someone dies in prison.
Jump ahead to these sections:
The procedures for handling the bodies of inmates who die in prison are not standardized but we’ll cover many of the ways prisons typically handle inmate deaths, as well as the roles next of kin may (or may not) play when a loved one dies behind bars.
What Happens to a Former Inmate's Body After They Die?
It’s important to begin by noting that there isn’t one universal answer to this question. The circumstances surrounding an inmate’s death typically play a crucial role in determining what happens to their body after they die.
Additionally, laws regarding how prisons must respond to inmate deaths vary from one country to another. This blog entry will only cover some of the ways prisons address this sensitive issue in the U.S.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the topic of “death in custody” remains very controversial in some circles. Some organizations and activists feel more must be done to ensure inmates who die in custody receive respectful treatment. They also believe their families may deserve better treatment than they often receive.
That said, the following are some common examples of what happens when someone dies in prison.
Traditional burial or cremation
Typically, prison officials will notify a deceased inmate’s loved ones to inform them of their death. However, the means by which they may do so highlight some of the reasons advocacy groups believe laws must hold prisons to higher standards when inmates die behind bars.
According to a report from The Marshall Project, a nonprofit publication covering criminal justice topics, it’s all too common for loved ones to learn about an inmate’s death through short text messages, voicemails, emails, and other insensitive means. According to psychological experts, this is improper, as the best way to inform someone of a loved one’s death is to do so calmly and in person.
Regardless, when a loved one learns of an inmate’s death, they have the right to claim the body (if they qualify as next of kin). If they do, their options are the same as they would be if their loved one passed away outside of prison. They can plan a traditional funeral, as well as a burial or cremation.
However, as the next example will illustrate, it’s often important that the next of kin coordinate with prison authorities as soon as possible to let them know they plan to handle making the funeral arrangements.
If the next of kin doesn’t let prison officials know they want to plan the funeral in a timely manner, the prison may assume control of the body. What they do with it next varies on a case-by-case basis.
In general, individual county regulations dictate how a prison should dispose of a former inmate’s body if loved ones aren’t involved in the process. This often involves direct burial or cremation.
Sometimes families may prefer to handle the funeral planning, but they don’t have the money to do so. This is another instance in which prison officials are responsible for disposing of the body.
A note on the role of chaplains
A loved one’s death is almost always a painful experience. The experience may even be uniquely painful when an incarcerated loved one died before they could rejoin free society.
Many family members struggle to know how to proceed after an inmate’s death. For example, they may worry they can’t afford a funeral but also have a strong desire to ensure their loved one’s body receives proper and respectful treatment.
Many prisons have chaplains on staff. Helping loved ones make these decisions is among their duties.
Donation to science
Although direct burial or cremation are common methods prisons use to dispose of the bodies of former inmates when they assume control of them, they aren’t the only options. For example, sometimes prisons will donate bodies to scientific research institutions.
This brings up an important point: When inmates are likely to be in prison for a long time (or the rest of their lives), they can often draft a will specifying what they would like to happen to their body after they die. Many inmates who worry their loved ones won’t be able to afford planning a funeral use this opportunity to state that they would like to donate their body to science.
An important note on investigations
Not everyone who dies in prison dies of natural causes. Murders, suicides, and accidents resulting from negligence still occur in prison.
That said, sometimes prison officials don’t feel the need to devote resources to investigating an inmate’s death if they feel they can write it off as a probable suicide.
Fortunately, the loved ones of a deceased inmate usually have the right to request an investigation. Even when it appears an inmate died of natural causes, they still have the right to request an autopsy.
Loved ones can even take legal action against prisons if they suspect an inmate’s death was the result of negligence. For example, earlier this year (2020), a family in Oregon filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Oregon State Penitentiary, alleging the prison failed to properly treat their loved one for the flu, then attempted to cover up their negligence when he passed away.
That’s just one example. It simply demonstrates how unique circumstances can influence what happens when someone dies in prison, and loved ones of former inmates do have rights in these unique circumstances.
How Are Former Inmates Laid to Rest?
Again, because there’s no one answer to what happens when someone dies in prison, the way in which a prison may lay an inmate to rest depends on various factors, including local laws. We’ve included two fairly standard examples.
New York State
New York State’s code requires prisons to adhere to relatively strict procedures regarding how to notify next of kin when an inmate dies. That said, if the prison officials are unable to locate next of kin after 48 hours from an inmate’s death (or if the next of kin declines to claim an inmate’s remains), the code allows prisons to begin planning a “suitable funeral” and a burial or cremation.
The statute also specifies that if prison officials haven’t been able to contact a deceased inmate’s next of kin after 48 hours have expired but they have reason to believe there’s a good chance they’ll still be able to, they can continue trying to find them. If they’re unable to after seven days, they must begin making funeral arrangements.
Ohio also requires prisons to make reasonable attempts to notify a deceased inmate’s next of kin after they die. In Ohio, an inmate can provide a written declaration naming the person they wish to claim their body if they die in custody.
If the inmate didn’t provide said declaration, or the person they named fails to qualify for the responsibility (for example, if they’ve engaged in applicable legal misconduct, the prison can then reach out to other individuals, such as an inmate’s spouse, children, and others.
If no one claims the remains, or if prison officials can’t locate someone qualified to do so in a reasonable timeframe, the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction will then claim ownership of the body.
Like in New York, Ohio law allows the DRC to bury or cremate the bodies of deceased inmates. However, the Ohio statute also specifies that cremation is an option on the condition that an autopsy has confirmed an inmate died of natural causes. If it’s not certain an inmate died of natural causes, cremation isn’t an option because future investigations may be necessary.
Either way, whether the DRC cremates or buries an inmate, they bury or inter their remains at an official DRC cemetery. A deceased inmate’s gravesite should have its own metal, stone or concrete marker with an inscription of the deceased’s name, date of birth, and date of death.
When Someone Dies in Prison: A Complicated Topic
Once more, counties, states, and nations still grapple with determining what happens when someone dies in prison. While this overview covers the general processes in the U.S. as they currently stand, they may continue to change and develop in the future.
- “Inmate deaths.” Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, 11 December 2017, drc.ohio.gov/Portals/0/Policies/DRC%20Policies/66-ILL-02%20(Dec%202017).pdf?ver=2017-12-12-091821-103
- “Inmate Deaths - Administrative Responsibility.” New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 16 April 2020, doccs.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/11/4013.pdf
- Thompson, Christie. “Your Loved One Dies. The Prison Leaves a Voicemail.” The Marshall Project, The Marshall Project, 21 June 2018, www.themarshallproject.org/2018/06/21/your-loved-one-dies-the-prison-leaves-a-voicemail
- “What Happens When a Loved One Dies in Prison?” iMortuary, Copper Six LLC, 9 June 2013, www.imortuary.com/blog/what-happens-when-a-loved-one-dies-in-prison/
- “What Happens When Your Loved One Dies in Prison.” New Hampshire Review, New Hampshire Review, 30 November 2017, newhampshirereview.com/uncategorized/happens-loved-one-dies-prison/
- Woodworth, Whitney. “Family of man who died of flu at Salem prison sues for $15 million, allege cover-up.” Statesman Journal, Statesmanjournal.com, 29 January 2020, www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/crime/2020/01/29/salem-oregon-prison-man-died-flu-death-lawsuit-mental-illness/4608883002/