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U.S. Department of Justice Publishes Statistics on Prisoners’ Deaths

Report number NCJ 255970 covered mortality in state and federal prisons 2001 - 2018 while number NCJ 256002 covered mortality in state and local jails 2000 - 2018. In 2018, the number of deaths and mortality rate in jails and state prisons was the highest it has been since the BJS started tracking those statistics. The number of deaths and mortality rate in federal prisons remained near the highest level, which was recorded in 2016.

State and Federal Prisoner Mortality Statistics 2001-2018

Total estimated U.S. prison populations varied between 1,322,600 in 2001 and a maximum of 1,490,600 in 2009. By 2018, it was 1,351,900. Federal prison populations were 137,100 in 2001, hit a maximum of 176,500 in 2012, and had declined to 151,500 by 2018. State prison populations were 1,185,500 in 2001, hit a maximum of 1,324,500 in 2008, and declined to 1,200,400 by 2018.

A total of 301 federal prisoners died in 2001. In 2015, the deaths hit a maximum of 455.They declined to 378 by 2018. 2,869 state prisoners died in 2001. The number of state prisoner deaths stayed between 3,300 and 3,500 per year between 2008 and 2014, then steadily rose to 4,135, its highest level, in 2018.

Combined U.S. prisoner deaths were 3,170 in 2001 and rose to 4,513, the highest number recorded, in 2018. Cancer (1,137) and heart disease (1,052) were the leading causes of prisoners’ deaths in 2018. Both numbers had been fairly steady since 2013. By contrast, the number of deaths attributed to drug/alcohol intoxication and suicide rose dramatically in recent years. Only 50 deaths were attributed to drug/alcohol intoxication in 2014. This quintupled to 249 by 2018. Likewise, the 192 prisoner suicides in 2013 increased by 62% to 311 in 2018. Just between 2017 and 2018, drug/alcohol deaths increased 23% and suicides increased 20%.

The mortality rate rose steady from 242 per 100,000 state prisoners in 2001 to 344 per 100,000 in 2018. The mortality rate due to drug/alcohol intoxication remained steady at 3 - 4 per 100,000 between 2001 and 2014, then rose rapidly to 21 per 100,000 in 2018. Likewise, the mortality rate for suicide rose from 14 per 100,000 in 2001 to 26 in 2018. This compares with adjusted U.S. adult population mortality rates of 39/100,000 due to drug/alcohol intoxication and 22/100,000 by suicide in 2018.

The mortality rate of state prisoners in 2018 (319 per 100,000) was lower than the mortality rate for the entire adult U.S. population (1,110/100,000) even when adjusted for age, race or ethnicity, and sex (419/100,000). Notably, the mortality rates for AIDS-related and liver disease fell from 23/100,000 and 26/100,000, respectively in 2001 to 2/100,000 and 18/100,000 in 2018, reflecting medical advances in treating those diseases. Meanwhile the mortality rate for homicide rose from 3/100,000 in 2001 to 10/100,000 in 2018.

The mortality rate for federal prisoners was 220/100,000 in 2001, peaked at 283 in 2015, and settled down to 250 in 2018. The mortality rate due to suicide doubled from 8/100,000 in 2013 to 19 in 2018, but statistics on drug/alcohol intoxication deaths were not available.

Between 2001 and 2018, the total number of state prisoners increased 1% while the number of state prisoner deaths increased 44%. Whites accounted for 53% of state prisoner deaths in 2018, but made up only 32% of the state prisoner population. The mortality rate for white state prisoners was 580/100,000 in 2018, compared with 344 for Blacks and 191 for Hispanics. The mortality rate for male state prisoners was 356/100,000 compared to 203 for females. As expected, mortality rates for state prisoners increased with increasing age, starting with 0/100,000 for those 17 or under, 58 for 18-24, 85 for 25-34, 128 for 45-54, and 1,606 for those over 54.

The states with the highest prisoner mortality were, in descending order, Louisiana (766/100,000), Tennessee (619), Alabama (588), West Virginia (583), Mississippi (572), and South Carolina (619).

Overall, illness was the cause of death for 87% of state and 90% of federal prisoners in 2018. Suicide accounted for 6% of state and 5% of federal prisoner deaths. Homicide amounted to 2% of state and nearly 3% of federal prisoner deaths. 61% of the state prisoners who died in 2018 were over 54, a dramatic increase from the 34% in 2001.This probably reflects the aging of the U.S. prisoner population as prisoners serve ever longer average sentences.

Mortality Statistics for Prisoners in Local Jails, 2000-2021

U.S. local jails had an average daily population of 727,600 in 2018, up from 597,900 in 2001. Peak jail population was 745,200 in 2012. Jails from 2,805 jurisdictions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia contributed information used in the report with the exception of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont which operate combined prison/jail systems.

In 2018, 616,600 of jail prisoners were male and 111,000 were female. The 2018 racial breakdown of jail prisoners was 273,300 white, 213,000 Black, and 155,300 Hispanic. 244,900 had been convicted and 482,800 had not. 19,200 were being held in jails with less than 50 prisoners, 35,300 in jails with 50-99 prisoners, 101,800 in jails with 100-249 prisoners, 123,700 in jails with 250-499, 137,500 in jails with 500-999, and 309,900 in jails with 1,000 or more.

The long-term trend was decreasing populations in jails under 250 prisoners and increasing populations in larger jails. Jails with 250-499 prisoners increased the most, 64%, from 75,500 in 2000 to 123,700 in 2021.

In 2018, the number of prisoners who died in local jails hit its highest number, 1,120, since 2000, the first year the BJS collected such data. This was an increase of 2% over the 1,099 jail deaths reported in 2017. The mortality rate also increased 2% from 151 per 100,000 jail prisoners in 2017 to 154 in 2018.

The leading cause of jail prisoner deaths in 2018 was suicide (29.9%), followed by heart disease (25.9%) and drug/alcohol intoxication (15.9%). No other single cause accounted for more than 3% of jail prisoner deaths.

Drug/alcohol intoxication deaths recently increased sharply, from 5.9% of deaths in 2012 to 15.9% in 2018. AIDS-related deaths declined from 6.3% in 2000 to 2.2% in 2012 and 0.8% in 2018.Likewise, deaths due to liver disease declined from 3.3% in 2008 to 0.8% in 2018.

Comparing the 2018 mortality rate in jails to the 2018 mortality rate among adult U.S. residents adjusted for sex, race or ethnicity, and age yielded 146 per 100,000 jail prisoners and 322 per 100,000 U.S. residents. The jail prisoner mortality rate for heart disease was about half that of U.S. residents (39 per 100,000 compared to 69/100,000). Likewise, the jail prisoner mortality rate for drug/alcohol intoxication was about two-thirds that of U.S. residents (24 per 100,000 compared to 38/100,000). By contrast, the suicide morality rate was about double for jail prisoners (45 per 100,000 compared to 22/100,000).

In 2018, whites were 38% of jail prisoners, but accounted for 59% of prisoner deaths. Blacks accounted for 29% of the jail population and 25% of the deaths. Hispanics were 21% of the jail population, but only 13% of the deaths.

Unconvicted prisoners accounted for 74.6% of the total jail deaths. 40.4% of those dying in jail had spent less than a week in jail. Another 20.4% had been jailed less than a month. Prisoners charged with violent offenses accounted for 37.2% of deaths, the largest grouping according to offense type.

The mortality rate for white jail prisoners was 242 per 100,000, for Blacks it was 130/100,000 and for Hispanics 96/100,000. It was 247 per 100,000 for those charged with violent offenses, 152/100,000 for males and 162/100,000 for females. At 998 per 100,000, prisoners 55 or over had by far the highest mortality rate among the age groups. Those lowered to 222/100,000 for the 45-54 age group, 185/100,000 for 35–44, 94 for 25–34, 36 for 18–24 and 0 for under 18.

The amount of time served prior to death varied according to the cause of death from a maximum of 137 days for cancer to a minimum of one day for drug/alcohol intoxication. Those dying by suicide averaged nine days in jail. The average for all causes of death was 17 days.

The amount of time served prior to death also varied according to the charged offense from 134 days for murder to four days for traffic offenses other than DUI/DWI. For rape/sexual assault, it was 77 days and for robbery, 51 days. For drug trafficking, it was 33 days and for drug possession, eight days.

At 208 per 100,000 prisoners; the mortality rate was highest in the smallest jails—those with less than 50 prisoners. Jails with 50–99 prisoners had a mortality rate of 175/l00,000, those with l00–249 had a rate of 153. The rate for jails with 250–499 was 142. The lowest mortality rate was in jails with 500–999 at 138/100,000, while those with 1,000–2,499 had a rate of 171, and the largest jails, with 2,000 or more, had a rate of 146/100,000.

The states which held the most prisoners in jail in 2018 were California (75,570), Texas (68,445) and Florida (55,958). No other state had more than 40,000 jail prisoners on average each day.

Jail mortality rates in the various states were difficult to calculate because some states had very few prisoners and ten or fewer deaths, making for large margins of error in their statistics. Among the states with a sufficient number of prisoners and deaths to calculate an accurate rate, the highest rates were in Washington State (245 deaths per 100,000 prisoners), Ohio (230/100,000), Missouri (217), and Kansas (210). The lowest rates were in Indiana (97), Mississippi (100), Georgia (116), and Kentucky (121).

The prison and jail statistics clearly show that staff and administrators need to focus on preventing deaths by suicide, which are very high, and due to drug or alcohol intoxication, which are rapidly rising. The need may be especially acute in the smallest jails, which have the highest mortality rate of all jails. 




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