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Prisoners’ Death Rate Report Indicts Prison Medical Care by Implication

Prisoners’ Death Rate Report Indicts Prison Medical Care by Implication

by David M. Reutter

A report by the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has issued a report on the 12,129 state prisoners’ deaths reported between 2001 and 2004. That report examined the circumstances and causes of death using information obtained from individual death records collected under the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2002.

During the period under analysis, 99% of all state prisoners were between the ages of 15 and 64. The good news is that the mortality rate for prisoners is 19% lower than the comparable age group of U.S. residents. While that trend continued for all prisoner age groups under 45, the prisoner death rate for the 55 to 64 age group was 59% higher than the U.S. resident population.

Although the report makes no direct connection to prison medical care, it does state that among illness fatalities: medical staff evaluated prisoners for illness in 94% of cases, administering medications for the fatal condition 93% of the time. A blood test, x-ray, or MRI was conducted in 89% of the cases.

Prisoners who died of illness entered prison with that illness in 68% of those fatalities. Amongst those deaths, the rates were 94% for AIDS, 10% for liver diseases, and 54% for cancer. Among leading causes of death, influenza and pneumonia were the least likely to be present at the time of admission.

Overall, prison authorities reported over 60 different fatal medical conditions, but prisoner deaths were heavily concentrated among a small number of diseases. Heart disease (27%) and cancer (23%) accounted for half of all prisoners deaths. When you combine liver diseases (10%) and AIDS related deaths (7%), two-thirds of all prisoner deaths were caused by these diseases.

The report says a specific cancer site was named in 79% of all cancer deaths. Lung cancer was the leading one, causing 8% of all prisoner deaths. That disease caused 910 deaths, which is more than the next 6 leading sites of cancer deaths (864) combined. Men died of cancer at twice the rate of women. For men, lung, liver, and colon cancer was the biggest risk. In women, breast, ovarian, cervical, and uterine cancer accounted for 24% of cancer deaths. In all, men died at a 72% higher rate than women.

Over 41% of all prisoner deaths occurred in five states. Each of them recorded over 500 deaths between 2001 and 2004. Texas led all states with 1,582 deaths, followed by California (1,306), Florida (813), New York (712), and Pennsylvania (558). The mortality rates were lowest for Vermont, Alaska, Iowa, North Dakota, and Utah. A distinction not made in the report is that the difference between the highest and lowest rates is sheer size of the prison system.

A point that can not be missed in the report is that the older the prisoner, the more likely death is to occur. The death rate of prisoners age 55 or older was over three times higher than that of prisoners 45 to 54. While prisoners 45 or older account for only 14% of all state prisoners between 2001/2004, they accounted for 67% of all prisoner deaths over that period. Suicide was the leading cause of death for prisoners under 35.

The mortality rate for older prisoners was particularly high. While those 65 or older only comprised 1% of the prison population, they accounted for 15% of all deaths. This group did not typically involve prisoners who have been incarcerated as young adults or on life sentences. A majority, 59% were 55 or older when admitted to prison and 85% of them were 45 or older upon admission.

While the report makes no conclusions about medical care, PLN readers will note past articles that detail the inept or nonexistent medical care that is often rendered to save states money or to increase the profits of a private vendor. Typically, health problems do not manifest themselves in young people. The fact that 89% of all prisoner deaths are attributed to medical conditions and that two-thirds of those deaths are in prisoners 45 or older is an indication that a problem exists in prison medical care, especially when we consider that death rate is 56% higher than the U.S. population.

The report entitled, Medical Causes of Death in State Prisons, 2001-2004, issued in January 2007 is available on PLN’s website.


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