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Census Bureau Report Finds Risk of Death Nearly Triples for Prisoners After Release

by Matt Clarke

In February 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau published what may be the first multi-state report on the mortality of released prisoners. After their incarceration, “former prisoners have higher mortality rates than their demographic counterparts in the general population,” the study warned.

The study compared the deaths of people who had been released from prison in 2010 normalized to the non-prison U.S. population (adjusted for age, gender, race, and ethnic group) to create standard mortality ratios (SMR). The overall SMR of 2.8 meant that these released prisoners were nearly three times as likely to die as similar people in the non-prison population within the same time frame.

The first month post-release was the most dangerous time, accounting for 3.1% of the total deaths noted during the 60-month study. This first-month spike was especially high for non-Hispanic whites (NHW), who were 13.8 times more likely to die in those 30 days than their general population counterparts.

Because the study involved a large sample population — 478,000 people (79% of all state prisoners released in 2010) in 35 states and about 18,000 deaths — it was able to compare subgroups of the releasees to one another, concluding that “the magnitude of these differences [as reflected in elevated SMRs] vary by race/Hispanic origin, sex, and age.”

NHW releasees were more likely to die than any other group, with 4.7% expiring within the five-year study, much higher than the 3% of Black releasees who died or the 3.6% of Hispanic releasees who didn’t survive.

As might be expected, older releasees had a higher likelihood of death, rising from 1.8% for the under-25 group to 3.3% for those aged 35–44, 6.6% for those 45–54 and 13.7% for those 55–64. The over-64 group had the highest five-year post-release death rate at 23.3%.

The first-month spike in SMR falls in line with previous studies, such as one showing the mortality rate among Washington state releasees was 12.7 times that of the state’s non-imprisoned population during the first two weeks post-release. Likewise, a New York study showed the odds of dying declined by about 2% per month after release from prison, with a decline of 24% for those who survived a year on parole. However, the SMR of younger releasees dropped more slowly over time than that of older releasees.

Interestingly, the study found that re-incarceration during the study’s five years lowered the risk of death for those prisoners compared to those who remained free, since those incarcerated in state prisons have “lower mortality rates than the U.S. resident population for all causes except cancer, suicide, and homicide.”

Prisoners released to community supervision had a lower risk of death than those released unconditionally. The lowest risk of death associated with unconditional release was observed for non-Hispanic blacks.

Also, prisoners with a history of multiple short prior prison terms were more likely to die than those who had served a single, lengthy prison sentence. Length of sentence did not affect the likelihood of death for Blacks, but NHW and Hispanic prisoners who served a short sentence had a greater chance of death than those who served a long sentence.

Over the length of the study, while the SMR for male releasees was 2.8, it was 4.8 for females. NHW males (3.6) fared better than NHW females (5.7), but both were far worse than Black males (1.7) or females (2.8) and better than Hispanic males (4.1) or females (7.9). “Non-Hispanic other” females had the worst SMR (9.6). 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Center for Economic Studies (CES): Mortality in a Multi-State Cohort of Former State Prisoners, 2010-2015

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