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New Report Finds Inmate Deaths on the Rise

Inmate deaths in local jails and state prisons are on the rise for the third year in a row, according to a new study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The report, released on August 4, found that the number of jailhouse deaths increased between 2012 and 2013 even though jail populations declined by 4% during that time.

The leading causes of death in the report match up with findings from other reports recently published by the BJS and ACLU, which point to a disproportionately sick and aging prison population that not only carries a significant economic cost, but a serious human toll as well.


The sick

An earlier report put out by BJS in February found that 40% of prisoners and inmates had current, chronic medical conditions and that 36% of inmates were denied their prescription medications upon incarceration.

This month’s report found 50% of all inmate deaths in local jails in 2013 were attributed to illness. That year, heart disease deaths rose 11%, cancer deaths 4% and liver disease deaths by 16%. Specifically, suicides and heart disease are the leading causes of death in local jails, and have been since 2000. Suicide, however, was the leading cause of death across age groups over each year of the study, increasing 12% over the past 5 years. In 2013, 34% of all inmate deaths were suicides.

Drug or alcohol intoxication deaths also increased 23% between 2012 to 2013 — health issues that were omitted from the healthcare report BJS put out earlier this year. The bureau also found that white and non-Hispanic jail inmates had a mortality rate involving drugs and alcohol three times higher than their black non-Hispanic and Hispanic counterparts between 2000 to 2013.

In prisons, 89% of deaths between 2000 and 2013 were attributed to illness. Male prisoners were twice as likely as female prisoners to die of cancer, heart disease, and liver disease — the leading causes of death in state lock-ups.

Both jails and prisons were found to have a disproportionate number of people suffering from AIDS when compared to the general population but, since 2000, the rate of AIDS-related deaths has declined 82% in prisons and 30% in jails.


The elderly

The study also found that from 2001 to 2013, prisoners aged 55 or older were three-to-nine-times more likely to die of an accident than younger prisoners. The same age group accounted for more than half of all deaths in state prisons in 2013. ƒ The percentage of people who died 55 or older had increased by an average of 8% each year since 2001.

Harsh sentencing laws and mandatory minimums have contributed to the aging prison population. A report put out by the ACLU in 2012 found significant challenges to incarcerating elderly people. Not only are they at higher risk of contracting infections or developing chronic medical conditions, but they’re also less mobile and require more assistance to perform normal activities than other inmates do. When they get sick or injured, their hospital stayed are longer and more-frequent, and their healthcare is often more expensive.

The majority of jail and prison inmates who died each year between 2000 and 2013 spent seven days or less in custody. In total, approximately 4,446 inmates died in 2013 — the highest number BJS has recorded since 2007.


25% of all inmate deaths took place in facilities in California and Texas, which have some of the highest inmate populations in the country. The majority of jail and prison inmates who died each year between 2000 and 2013 spent seven days or less in custody. In total, approximately 4,446 inmates died in 2013 — the highest number BJS has recorded since 2007.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Wood speaks at an event supporting his re-election on June 16, 2007. (Wikimedia Commons / Natalie Maynor)
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.