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Death by Incarceration: Study Reveals High Death Rates Inside NY’s State Prisons

by Keith Sanders 

In 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment, New York state had been executing people since 1608. The total number of individuals put to death by the state in that period is staggering: 1,130. Yet as appallingly high as that number may be, more people have died while in state custody just in the past decade: 1,278. That’s one death in a New York prison every three days. “Death by incarceration” also means that in the 35 years since the state began compiling data in 1976, there have been 7,504 prisoners who died in state prisons.

The death toll inside state penitentiaries was recently highlighted in an October 2021 study by Columbia University’s Center of Justice. In addition to the striking number of deaths, the study by Melissa Tanis and Cameron Rasmussen also discovered myriad disparities in causes of deaths, especially with respect to race and age. So the authors broke them down by age, time served, and race in an effort to tease out trends. After discussing how the deaths impacted families, the authors concluded by offering several recommendations to reverse those trends. 

In 1976, thirty prisoners died behind bars in New York prisons. By 2019 that number had risen by 273% to 112. Deaths did not begin to significantly rise until the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic decimated the New York prison population, causing approximately 65% of all prisoner deaths. Most of those who perished were young, between the ages of 25 to 44, representing 68% of all AIDS deaths, according to the study. 

Since then, deaths have steadily declined in that age group. Unfortunately, as New York’s prisoner population has aged the number of deaths for those 55 and older has accelerated, “with 40% of all deaths behind bars of people 55 and older happening in just the last ten years,” the study reported. 

To highlight that shift, the authors pointed out that between the 1980s and 2010s deaths actually decreased by 7%, but the number of deaths of people 55 and older increased by 504%. In every decade, starting in the 1980s, deaths in all other age groups—under 25, 25 to 39 and 40 to 54—have declined, except in the 1990s as a result of the AIDS epidemic. The authors attributed that higher trend to more draconian sentencing guidelines and decreasing rates of parole. 

Serving longer sentences means that deaths of those who have been incarcerated for 15+ years have outpaced those who have served less than 15 years. Those numbers dramatically increased in the 2000s. In the 1990s, prisoners serving 15 or more years “represented only 3.8% of all deaths. In the last decade, they made up 32%,” the study revealed. Overall, that represents an increase of 258% of individuals serving sentences of 15+ years since the 1990s and an alarming 777% rise since the 1980s. 

Moreover, a 2016 study by Christopher Wildeman discovered that “each year a person is incarcerated reduces their life expectancy by two years.” 

Data Limitations Hinder
Racial Analysis

The study’s analysis of racial disparities regarding the 7,504 deaths in New York prisons was hampered by missing data. But of those for which data was available, 71% were Black or white prisoners. Less than 1% were Asian or Native American, with another 21% labeled as “other” or not labeled at all. The study was “only able to determine that Black prisoner deaths made up anywhere between 37%-58% of all deaths behind bars,” with the AIDS epidemic accounting for more Black prisoners deaths than whites, around 70% more. 

Black prisoners make up 48% of the state’s overall prison population and their death rate is proportional to that number. Outside of prisons, Black residents account for just 18% of the state’s population. According to data from the state Department of Health, in 2018 Black people made up 14% of all deaths in the state but comprised 45% of all deaths inside state prisons, while whites made up 77% of deaths outside of prison and 43% inside.

The trends for the 2020s, according to the Center’s study, appear to be more of the same. In 2020, “55 of the 98 deaths were older people” and “29% of the total number of deaths in 2020” were serving 15 or more years. 

The study also noted an unexpected but negative impact on the families of incarcerated people. Referring to research by a public health organization compiled in 2021, “experiencing the incarceration of a family member decreased life expectancies between 2.6-4.6 years” for the un-imprisoned family members. The researchers found that longer incarceration affected more family members for a longer period of time, and overall indicators of well-being and health were also much lower. 

To reverse the trend of prisoner deaths in New York, the authors recommended four areas where the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) should focus its efforts. First, they encourage passage of the Elder Parole Bill (S15/A3475 A), which would make almost 1,000 older prisoners eligible for parole. They point out that the bill does not automatically release prisoners but provides a “meaningful review and evaluation by the Parole Board.” 

Second, DOCCS needs to consider increasing parole rates rather than repeatedly denying prisoners parole. The study’s authors advocate passage of the Fair and Timely Parole Act (S1415/A4231A), which would provide “more meaningful parole reviews for incarcerated people who are already parole eligible.” The bill seeks to emphasize the individual’s “current risk and rehabilitation” instead of their crime. 

These two bills require the state Parole Board to increase staffing in order to perform adequate evaluations and assessments for releasing individuals. 

Finally, they also suggested DOCCS address the COVID-19 pandemic and remove barriers that restrict prisoners’ relationships and connections with their families. Another bill, the Protect In-Person Visitation Bill (A4250A), would prevent DOCCS from reducing visitation privileges or replacing in-person visits with video visits. This bill was passed by the state Senate in 2021 and is awaiting signature by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D).  

Source: Columbia University Center for Justice

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