Giving Compass' Take:
- Leah Wang and Wendy Sawyer analyze new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicating that state prisons are seeing significant increases in suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol-related deaths.
- What underlying factors contribute to this increase in deaths? What can funders do to reduce death rates in state prisons?
- Learn more about deaths in state prisons.
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The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on mortality in state and federal prisons is a reminder that prisons are in fact “death-making institutions,” in the words of activist Mariame Kaba. The new data is from 2018, not 2020, thanks to ongoing delays in publication, and while it would be nice to see how COVID-19 may have impacted deaths (beyond the obvious), the report indicates that prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous – a finding that should not be ignored. The new numbers show some of the same trends we’ve seen before – that thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness – but also reveal that an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol intoxication.
State prisons, intended for people sentenced to at least one year, are supposed to be set up for long-term custody, with ongoing programming, treatment, and education. According to one formerly incarcerated person, “if you have the choice between jail and prison, prison is usually a much better place to be.”
Deaths in jail receive considerable attention in popular news, and here on our website – which they should, given the deplorable conditions that lead to tragedy among primarily unconvicted people. State prisons, on the other hand, are regarded as more stable places, where life is slightly more predictable for already-sentenced people. Why, then, are suicides up 22 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior? Why are deaths by drug and alcohol intoxication up a staggering 139 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?
The answer isn’t just because there are more incarcerated people. The very slight net change in the state prison population since 2001 pales in comparison to the increase in overall deaths occurring in these facilities. (Prison populations have actually decreased since peaking in 2009, but they’re still larger in 2018 compared to 2001.) Prisons have been, and continue to be, dangerous places, exposing incarcerated people to unbearable physical and mental conditions.
Read the full article about deaths in state prisons by Leah Wang and Wendy Sawyer at Prison Policy Initiative.