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June 8, 2021

Prison Policy Initiative highlights data showing "State prisons are increasingly deadly places"

Prison Policy Initiative published today this new report (with helpful charts and data visuals) under the title "New data: State prisons are increasingly deadly places." The subtitle of this report captures the essence of the data discussed in the report: "New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that state prisons are seeing alarming rises in suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol-related deaths." Here are some excerpts from the start of the report (with links from original):

The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on mortality in state and federal prisons is a reminder that prisons are in fact “death-making institutions,” in the words of activist Mariame Kaba.  The new data is from 2018, not 2020, thanks to ongoing delays in publication, and while it would be nice to see how COVID-19 may have impacted deaths (beyond the obvious), the report indicates that prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous — a finding that should not be ignored.  The new numbers show some of the same trends we’ve seen before — that thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness — but also reveal that an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol intoxication....

Deaths in jail receive considerable attention in popular news, and here on our website — which they should, given the deplorable conditions that lead to tragedy among primarily unconvicted people.  State prisons, on the other hand, are regarded as more stable places, where life is slightly more predictable for already-sentenced people.  Why, then, are suicides up 22 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?  Why are deaths by drug and alcohol intoxication up a staggering 139 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?

The answer isn’t just because there are more incarcerated people.  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. (Prison populations have actually decreased since peaking in 2009, but they’re still larger in 2018 compared to 2001.)  Prisons have been, and continue to be, dangerous places, exposing incarcerated people to unbearable physical and mental conditions.  State prison systems must greatly improve medical and mental healthcare, address the relationship between correctional officers and the health of their populations, and work with parole boards to accelerate release processes.  Then, maybe, a state prison sentence would not become a death sentence for so many....

In 2018, state prisons reported 4,135 deaths (not including the 25 people executed in state prisons); this is the highest number on record since BJS began collecting mortality data in 2001.  Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people, a shameful superlative.  It may seem like a foregone conclusion that more people, serving decades or lifetimes, will die in prison.  But for at least 935 people, a sentence for a nonviolent property, drug, or public order offense became a death sentence in 2018.

June 8, 2021 at 04:55 PM | Permalink


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