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Prisoners Died By the Thousands Between 2001 and 2004

by Michael Rigby

Elderly prisoners are more than twice as likely to die behind bars as those who are not in prison, a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on prison mortality rates reveals. White and Hispanic prisoners were also slightly more likely to die than their non-incarcerated counterparts.

According to the report, released in January 2007, a total of 12,129 state prisoners died between 2001 and 2004.

Elderly prisoners were at exceptional risk of dying in prison. During the period examined "2001 through 2004" prisoners aged 55 to 64 died at a rate that was 56% higher than the general U.S. population.

The numbers detailed in the report are based on data collected under the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2000 (PL 106-297).

Five states accounted for nearly half (41%) of all prisoner deaths during this period. Texas led with 1,582 deaths (and that number would be much higher if the report had included executions), followed by California (1,306), Florida (813), New York (712), and Pennsylvania (558).

Not surprisingly, the length of a prisoner's sentence directly affected mortality rates. For prisoners who served at least 10 years in (state) prison, the death rate due to illness (503 per 100,000 prisoners) was triple that of prisoners who had served less than five years in prison (162 per 100,000).

Based on the data, prison life seems especially precarious for white prisoners. Between 2001 and 2004, according to the report, the mortality rates of black and Hispanic state prisoners were identical (206 deaths per 100,000 inmates), while the rate for white prisoners was 67% higher (343 per 100,000).

About 1 in 12 prisoner deaths resulted from suicide (6%) and homicide (2%). Alcohol/drug intoxication and accidental injury accounted for another 1% each. Suicide was the leading cause of death for state prisoners under 35.  

Illness accounted for the vast majority of prisoner deaths. Nearly two-thirds died from just 4 diseases: heart disease (27%), cancer (23%), liver disease (10%), and AIDS related complications (7%). Of the cancer related deaths, one in three was attributed to lung cancer.

The report notes that, overall, the mortality rate for prisoners between 2001 and 2004 was 19% less than the rate for the comparative non-imprisoned U.S. population (i.e., those between the ages of 15 and 64, which accounts for 99% of all state prisoners).

However, white and Hispanic prisoners were still more likely to die in prison than those on the outside. It is only when the mortality rates for black Prisoners' who were 57% less likely to die in prison during this period than the non-imprisoned black population were averaged in that the overall prisoner mortality rate falls to below that of the general population.

The bottom line is this: Not matter how you spin the numbers, prison remains a dangerous and deadly place. See: Medical Causes of Death in State Prisons, 2001-2004, January 2007, NCJ 216340. The report is available on PLN's website.

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