Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

U.S. Department of Justice Releases Report on Deaths in Jails

by Matt Clarke

In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report on mortality in U.S. jails from 2000 through 2007. During the 8-year period covered by the report, 8,110 prisoners died in U.S. jails. The number of deaths increased each year from 905 in 2000 to 1,103 in 2007, but the mortality rate declined from 152 deaths per 100,000 prisoners in 2000 to 141 deaths per 100,000 in 2007. This is because the average daily jail population increased 31% from 597,226 in 2000 to 782,592 in 2007, outpacing a 22% increase in the number of prisoner deaths.

Each year, over 80% of the approximately 3,000 jail jurisdictions participating in the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program report no prisoner deaths. Just over 40% reported no prisoner deaths during the entire 8-year period covered by the report.

The leading cause of death among jail prisoners was suicide, accounting for 29% of all deaths. The probability of a prisoner committing suicide went down as the size of the jail increased. The suicide rate among the smallest jails was 6 times higher than among the largest jails.

Jails with an average daily population of over 1,000 comprise just 6% of the nation’s local lock-ups yet house 52% of the jail population. Jails with an average daily population of under 50 make up about 40% of all jails and hold about 3% of the nation’s jail prisoners. The smallest jails had a suicide rate of 169 per 100,000 prisoners while the 50 largest jails had a suicide rate of 27 per 100,000.

The reason for this disparity may be the lack of suicide prevention protocols in smaller jails. For example, just 54% of the smaller jails provide their staff with suicide prevention training compared with 91% of the largest jails. Only 41% of the smallest jails provide counseling or psychiatric services to prisoners compared with over 90% of the largest jails. Further, higher prisoner turnover rates at smaller jails may contribute to higher suicide rates, as the majority of jail suicides (64%) occur within the first month of incarceration.

At 41 deaths per 100,000 prisoners, heart disease was the leading cause of death in the 50 largest jails. The AIDS-related death rate was 7.5 times higher (15 per 100,000) within the 50 largest jails than in jails with an average daily population of under 1,000 (2 per 100,000). The homicide rate in the 50 largest jails was triple that of all other jails, but the intoxication death rate in the smallest jails (31 per 100,000) was quadruple that of the 50 largest jails (8 per 100,000).

Generally, the time period immediately following admission to a jail is the most dangerous time for prisoners. Over half of prisoner deaths occurred within one month of admission, with 24% of such deaths occurring within two days of admission. Eighty percent of intoxication deaths and 62% of accidental deaths took place within the first month of incarceration. Deaths due to illnesses, such as cancer and AIDS-related causes, occurred at a higher rate among prisoners over 180 days after admission.

AIDS-related deaths made up 5% of all deaths and decreased 50% during the reporting period, from 10 per 100,000 to 5 per 100,000, possibly due to improvements in medical treatment for HIV. Suicide was the only other cause of death to diminish during the reporting period, dropping from 49 per 100,000 prisoners to 36 per 100,000.

Deaths due to accidents (4 per 100,000) and homicide (3 per 100,000) remained constant throughout the reporting period. The death rate for intoxication grew from 6 per 100,000 in 2000 to 10 per 100,000 in 2007. In 93% of the deaths reported, an autopsy was performed. In 6% of deaths among jail prisoners, no definitive cause of death was determined.

The overall mortality rate of state prisoners was 251 per 100,000 compared with 143 per 100,000 among jail prisoners overall. The suicide rate for jails was 2.6 times that of state prisons.

Not surprisingly, jail prisoners over age 45 had a death rate 5 times higher than those under 45, and were 9 times more likely to die from an illness – including 11 times more likely to die of heart disease and 19 times more likely to die of cancer. Prisoners over age 55 had a death rate 10 times that of prisoners between age 25 and 34.

The mortality rate for male prisoners (146 per 100,000) was slightly higher than for females (136 per 100,000). Males were 1.6 times more likely to die of suicide and 1.3 times more likely to die from heart disease, but females were 1.4 times more likely to die from other diseases and nearly twice as likely to die from intoxication.

White jail prisoners had a higher death rate (172 per 100,000) than blacks (123 per 100,000) or Hispanics (111 per 100,000). White prisoners committed suicide at four times the rate of black prisoners and double the rate of Hispanics. Although blacks and whites died of heart disease at similar rates, it was twice the rate of Hispanic prisoners. Heart disease was the leading cause of death among black prisoners (35 per 100,000). The AIDS-related death rate for black prisoners was quadruple that of whites and double that of Hispanics.

When the jail population is standardized to the demographics of the U.S. population as a whole, the leading causes of death are, in order of prevalence: suicide, heart disease, intoxication, AIDS and cancer. For the U.S. general population, the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease (stroke), chronic lower respiratory disease and accidents. The suicide rate for jail prisoners was triple that of the general population. Clearly, this report indicates a need, especially for smaller jails, to expend additional resources to prevent prisoner suicides.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Mortality in Local Jails, 2000-2007” (NCJ 222988)

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login