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Department of Justice Releases Report on Prison and Jail Deaths 2000-2009

by Matt Clarke

The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice has released a report detailing the deaths of prisoner in U.S. jails and prisons covering the years from 2000 through 2009. The rate of prisoner deaths in jails declined from 151 per 100,0000 prisoners in 2000 to 127 per 100,000 in 2009 while the prison rate increased slightly from 242 per 100,000 in 2001 to a 2009 rate of 257 per 100,000.

The decline in jail prisoner mortality was not uniform. There was a very slight decline from 2000 through 2007, averaging .5% per year, followed by a dramatic decline of 13% in 2008 and a slight increase of 3% in 2009. The primary reasons for the reduction in jail mortality rates was a 54% decrease in the number of AIDS-related deaths and a 20% reduction in deaths by suicide.

The number of prisoner deaths in jails increased an average of 3% per year from 904 in 2000 to 1,102 in 2007 before declining 13% to 960 in 2008 and declining slightly to 948 in 2009. With 97-99% of the approximately 2,800 U.S. jail jurisdictions responding, the total number of jail deaths reported between 2000 and 2009 was 10,005.
The leading causes of deaths in jails between 2000 and 2009 were suicide (29%), heart disease (22%) and alcohol intoxication (7%). No other cause exceeded 5%.

The jail death rate by suicide declined each year from 49 per 100,000 in 2000 to 36 per 100,000 in 2008, then increased to 41 per 100,000 in 2009. Between 2000 and 2009, prisoners over 55 years of age had the highest suicide rate (60 deaths per 100,000) with prisoners under 17 close behind (55 deaths per 100,000). Male jail prisoners were 1.6 times as likely to die of suicide as females (43 per 100,000 compared to 27) and whites were three times as likely to commit suicide as Hispanics and 1.6 times as likely as blacks.

Over the 2000 through 2009 period, female prisoners were 1.7 times more likely than males to die of intoxication. Prisoners over 55 were 3 times as likely as younger prisoners to die of an accident. Male prisoners accounted for over 98% of deaths by homicide in jails.

The number of deaths in prisons increased a total of 20% from 2001 to 2008. During that period, the mortality rate in prisons increased 3%, from 242 per 100,000 to 260 per 100,000, before declining 1% to 257 per 100,000 in 2009. Males constituted 93% of the prison population, but accounted for 961 of the deaths. Illness-related deaths accounted for 9 out of 10 prison deaths with heart disease (26%), cancer (23%) and liver disease (7%) as the leading causes of death. AIDS-related prison deaths declined 65% between 2001 and 2009.

Prisoners over 55 were 5% of the prison population between 2001 and 2009, but accounted for 41% of the prison deaths with annual death rates ranging from 2,007 to 2,500 per 100,000. Whites comprised 37% of the prison population and 50% of the deaths. Mortality rates for whites ran 1.4 to 1.8 times higher than other ethnic or racial groups.

During the 2001 to 2009 period, males in prison died at a rate of 260 per 100,000 while the female death rate was 153 per 100,000. Males accounted for over 99% of the homicide deaths in prisons. Males were twice as likely as females to die of liver disease (19 deaths per 100,000 prisoners compared to 8). Males were also 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than females.

Blacks were twice times as likely as Hispanics and three times as likely as whites to suffer an AIDS-related death (21 per 100,000, compared to 10 and 7). Blacks accounted for 68% of all AIDS-related prison deaths.

Prisoners over 55 years of age had the highest rates for deaths due to heart disease (664 deaths per 100,000), cancer (639 per 100,000), liver disease (113 per 100,000) and homicide (8 per 100,000) during the 2001 to 2009 period. The homicide rate was between 1.6 and 2.8 times higher than that of any other age group.

These statistics reflect increasing awareness of the dangers of jail suicide and the need for continuity of medication for jail prisoners with HIV infections as well as improvements in the quality of HIV medication. They also highlight the need for additional work, especially among black HIV-infected prisoners in prisons. The complete statistical report is available free online at

Source: Prison and Jail Deaths in Custody, 2000-2009 -Statistical Tables, NCJ 236219, December 2011

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