Prisons are becoming more dangerous as the number of inmates dying in custody is on the rise, a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative concludes.
The report indicates causes for the upsurge in deaths are from major and unnamed illnesses, along with unnatural causes such as suicide, homicide, alcohol and drugs.
“The answer isn’t just because there are more incarcerated people,” PPI reported. “The very slight net change in the state prison population since 2001 pales in comparison to the increase in overall deaths occurring in these facilities.”
In nearly every category, there is a record-setting number of deaths, according to PPI. State prison records from 2018 reported 4,135 deaths — excluding executions. It was the highest number of deaths on record reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which began keeping these records in 2001.
“Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people, a shameful superlative,” the report stated.
One of the stark features of the PPI report was the number of deaths from drug overdose and alcohol. Beginning in 2001, “no manner of death has spiked more,” although the BJS does not differentiate between one or the other.
Numbers show drug or alcohol intoxication has increased by 611% since 2001. Homicide increased by 208%, accidents increased by 95%, suicide by 85% and illness 27%. The 2020 mortality data will not be released for two years, the report stated. Then COVID-19 deaths will be incorporated.
“In 2018, state prisons saw the highest number of suicides (340) since BJS began collecting this data 20 years ago,” PPI reported. “Compared to the 1% net growth of state prison populations since 2001, suicides have increased by a shocking 85%.”
The PPI report noted that suicide is a common issue in the U.S., in general, but stated it has always been higher inside of state prisons. It said the BJS did not allow comparison of sentence lengths to death rates, “but it’s hard to ignore the possibility that longer sentences are contributing to a sense of hopelessness…”
“Not only does a longer incarceration increase the sheer probability of having a mental health crisis inside, but it also creates the conditions for this to happen,” PPI reported. “With longer periods of separation from loved ones, and a rapidly changing outside world, people serving long sentences are isolated and deprived of purpose.”
The report called attention to when an inmate is in crisis, “correctional officers are supposed to act swiftly to prevent suicide and self-harm.” However, some officers fail regularly to identify warning signs and have been found to “encourage” self-harm.
In 2018, homicides reached “a record high” of 120 in state prisons. “The rate of homicide in state prison is 2.5 times greater than in the U.S. population, when adjusted for age, sex and race/ethnicity,” it was reported.
PPI found that older inmates were more at risk of homicide “and all other causes of death, except for accidents.” And inmates 55 years and older died from homicide at the highest rate and “…were twice as likely to die by homicide as anyone aged 25 to 44.”
“Incarceration can add 10 or 15 years to someone’s physiology, and take two years off of their life expectancy per year served,” PPI reported. However, it recommended several ways in which prisons can reduce the risk of death:
Reduce prison populations through parole hearing approval rates and compassionate release
Provide “high-quality” treatment for substance use disorders
Reduce drug smuggling by staff with stricter security and “enduring consequences”
Make changes in sentencing policies
Improve healthcare services
Improve prison conditions of confinement
The report concluded that, “Had states taken these actions years ago to reduce other dangers in prisons, we might not have seen record mortality in 2018 — or for that matter, in 2020” (from COVID-19).