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Report Details Suicide and Homicide Rates in Prisons, Jails

Even though suicide and homicide rates among prisoners have been falling since the 1980s, thousands still die in U.S. prisons and jails every year. During 2001 and 2002, 5,824 state prisoners died in custody, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report released in August 2005. Another 2,843 prisoners died in local jails from 2000-2002.

Jail suicide rates have fallen sharply in recent years, from 129 per 100,000 prisoners in 1983 to 47 in 2002. Suicide rates in state prisons have also showed a steady decline, from 34 per 100,000 in 1980 to 16 per 100,000 in 1990, and have since stabilized at 14 per 100,000 in 2002.
Similarly, murder rates in state prison have dipped sharply, from 54 per 100,000 in 1980 to 4 per 100,000 in 2002. Murder rates in local jails showed a slight decline, from 5 per 100,000 in 1983 to 3 per 100,000 in 2002.

The report is the first based on data collected under the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 (Public Law 106-297). DICRA requires states receiving funds under the Violent Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing grant program to submit quarterly reports detailing deaths that occur in custody. Local jails began reporting in 2000, followed by state prisons in 2001, and state juvenile authorities in 2002.


Suicide is a great killer among jail prisoners, accounting for 32.3% of all jail deaths during 2000-2002. Only illness (47.6%) was responsible for more. Other jail prisoners died from AIDS (5.9%), homicide (2.1%), accidents (3.3%), intoxication (5.2%), and unknown causes (3.6%).
Among the 50 largest U.S. jail jurisdictions, death rates varied widely. While 12 had death rates of fewer than 100 per 100,000 prisoners (the lowest being Suffolk County, Massachusetts with only 29), 16 had rates of 200 or more deaths per 100,000. The deadliest was Baltimore, Maryland, with 381 deaths per 100,000 prisoners, followed by Jacksonville, Florida (341), and Davidson County, Tennessee (291).

Surprisingly, the suicide rate of the 50 largest jurisdictions (29 per 100,000) was half that of all other jails (57). While 8 of the top 50 jurisdictions reported no suicides during 2000-2002, 10 reported suicide rates of at least 50 per 100,000. Clark County, Michigan led with 107, followed by Wayne County, Michigan (97), and Baltimore, Maryland (88). [See PLN July 2005 for more on Marylands deadly jails and prisons.]
Even more suicides typically occurred in the nations smallest jails; and, as jail size decreased, the suicide rate increased. In the smallest jails, holding fewer than 50 prisoners, the average rate was more than 5 times higher (177 per 100,000) than the largest jails (32).

For the most part, males and white jail prisoners had the highest suicide rates. On average, men (50 per 100,000) were 56% more likely to commit suicide in jail than women (32). White jail prisoners were also more likely to commit suicide (96 per 100,000) than Hispanics (30) and blacks (16).
Age and proximity to admission were also factors in jail suicide rates. With the exception of child prisoners under age 18 (who had the highest rate--101 suicides per 100,000), jail suicide rates increased with age. Prisoners aged 18-24 had the lowest rate (38 per 100,000), followed by those aged 25-34 (47), 35-44 (53), and 55 or older (58). Nearly half (48%) of all jail suicides occurred during the first week. Age and race/ethnicity were not correlated to jail murder rates, which averaged 2.1%--for 59 murdered prisoners--during 2000-2003.


Of the 5,824 state prisoners who died during 2001-2002, 80% were attributed to illness/natural causes. Two-thirds of the deaths involved prisoners age 45 or older. Other causes of death were AIDS (8.8%), suicide (5.8%), homicide (1.5%), accident (0.9%), intoxication (1.2%), and other/unknown (1.3%).

Just as in local jails, white prisoners were more likely to die from all causes in prison (327 deaths per 100,000), than blacks (243) or Hispanics (207). White state prisoners were also the most likely to commit suicide (22 suicides per 100,000), compared to Hispanics (18), and blacks (8). Race/ethnicity also correlated with homicide rates in state prisons. Hispanic prisoners were more likely to be murdered during 2001-2002 (7 homicides per 100,000 prisoners) than whites (5) and blacks (2).

Nationwide, 337 state prisoners committed suicide in 2001 and 2002. Four states accounted for 42% of all suicides: California (52), Texas (49), New York (21), and Illinois (20). Nearly half of all states (24) reported 3 or fewer suicides.

As for proximity to admission, 7% of state prisoner suicides took place during the first month of imprisonment, 65% after the first year, and 33% after 5 years. This trend was reversed for homicide rates: only 1% of prison murders occurred during the victims first month, while 67% of murder victims had served at least 2 years and 37% at least 5 years.

During 2001-2002, 87 state prisoners were murdered. Three states accounted for 43% of all prisoner homicides, with California and Texas again leading (21 and 10 per 100,000 respectively), followed by Maryland (6). No other state reported more than 5 murders during the same period, and many--31 in 2001 and 29 in 2002--reported no murders.

According to the report, [a]ll but 8 of 87 prisoner homicides during the 2-year period were committed by other inmates (91%). Of those other homicide events, most involved escape attempts or cases in which assailant identity [guards?] was not established. Perhaps thats why no autopsy or post-mortem examination was performed in 8% percent of prison murders. All the data is self reported by the jails and prison systems which may be why data on how many prisoners are murdered by staff are not included even when staff are criminally convicted of the homicides.

Copies of the report, Suicide and. Homicide in. State Prisons and Local Jails, NCJ 210036, are available on the web at or by writing NCJRS, P.O. Box 6000, Rockville, Maryland 20849-6000.

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