U.S. Prison Death Rates and How to Lower Them

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics of the United States of America released a statement on July 2010. The report indicates the mortality rate in U.S jails from 2000 to 2007. Within the 8 years that the reports cover, 8110 prisoners have lost their lives in US prisons. The number of prisoner deaths has been increasing on an annual rate basis. In 2000, the number of prisoners who die in jails and prisons was 905. However, as at 2008, the number had increased to 1103. In terms of the mortality rate, which is the number of deaths for every 100000 people within a certain population, the rate has been falling since 2000. This contradiction is because of the increasing number of prisoners in US jails and prisons. For instance, the number of prisoners has increased by a massive 31% since 2000. In 2000, the prisons and jail population was at 597226. As at 2007, the population was at 782592. In addition, at that time, the number of deaths in prisons had increased by 22%. Since the population increase is greater than the increase in the number of deaths, it explains the reduction in the mortality rates in US jails and prisons (Clarke, 2012).

There is a number of factors that cause or lead to the deaths recorded in US prisons. In this paper, we examine the state of death rates in the US jails and prisons, the changing trends over time, the causal factors to the deaths and the measures, which governments and other units of the society can take in an effort to prevent or reduce these deaths. Since the 1980s, the leading factor that has contributed to the highest number of deaths in US jails and prisons has been suicide. Suicide accounts for approximately 29% of all deaths in US prison and jails. The probability of prisoners committing suicide has, however, reduced over the past years because of the increasing number of prisoners in US prisons (Clarke, 2012).

Jails that have a daily population of an upward of 1000 inmates consist of 6% of the county’s local lock ups. Surprisingly, these jails house an alarming 52% of the entire jail population of the US. On the contrary, jails with an average daily population of under 50 inmates constitute of 40% of all jails in the US. These jails hold 3% of the entire population of prisoners in the Country. According to report, jails and prisons with a small capacity have the largest suicide rates, at 169 deaths for every 100000 population of inmates. On the other hand, the rate of suicide in the largest jails and prisons in the US is low compared to small jails, with a suicide rate of 27 for every 1000000 population (Clarke, 2012).

Death Rates in Large and Small Prisons

Many have attributed this disparity in the rate of suicides in large and small prisons to the lack of adequate prevention protocols in small jails and prisons. For instance, 54% of the low capacity prisons provide their staff with an effective suicide prevention training program. On the other hand, 91% of large sized prisons provide their staff with a training program on how to prevent suicide attempts by inmates. In addition, only 41% of the small sized jails and prisons provide counseling or psychiatric services to prisoners, unlike the large sized prisons, where over 90% of them provide counseling and psychiatric services to inmates. In addition, the high turnover level in small jails has also accounted for the high number of suicides in small sized jails. Findings indicate that 64% of all the suicides recorded in US jails occur during the first month of incarceration (Pollock, 2009).

When the death rate in US prisons was at 41 deaths per 10000 inmates, the main factor that led to the deaths was heart diseases and attacks among 50 of the largest jails in the US. Deaths related to AIDS/HIV infections was at the rate of 15 people among 100000 of the inmate population in the largest prisons, unlike the case of small sized prisons, where the rate of deaths from HIV /AIDS related infections were at the rate of 2 deaths in every 100000 of the inmate population. In addition, the homicide rate is widespread among large prisons, approximately thrice the rate in other prisons in the US. Deaths due to intoxication are, however, common in small sized prisons, with the number currently at 31 deaths for every 100000 of the inmate population.

According to past research, the first month of an inmate’s admission into a prison or a jail is the most difficult and tempting moment of any prisoner. More than a half of all deaths recorded in prisons come in the first month of admission. In fact, 24% of all the deaths occur within the first 2 days of inmate admission in the prisons. In addition, 80% of deaths from intoxication and 62% of deaths from accidents also occur within the first month of incarceration. However, the deaths from infections such as cancer and aids related infections usually occur after 180 days of the admission of inmates within prisoners (Pollock, 2009).

AIDS related deaths constitute 5% of all deaths in US prisons. This is a 50% reduction from 2000, when the rate was at 10 deaths for every 100000 population of inmates. Viewers have credited this fall in the rate of deaths from HIV and AIDS related infections to the improved medical treatment services in US prisons in recent years. The rate of deaths as a result of suicide is the only causal factor that has also reduced, with the number of suicides falling from 49 deaths per 100000 inmates to 36 deaths for every 100000 population of inmates (Clarke, 2012).

Annual Changes in Causes of Deaths

Deaths in prisons as a result of accidents and homicides have remained at a constant rate for many years as at 2008, the rate of deaths from accidents was at 4 deaths in every 100000 of the inmate population. The rate of deaths from homicides was at 3 for every 100000 of the inmate population. However, the rate of deaths from intoxications has been on the rise. Currently, deaths from intoxication stand at 10 for every 100000 of the inmate population, an increase from 6 in 2000. It is also right to note that there are other deaths where medical practitioners could not account for their causes. As at 2008, doctors could not account for the causes of 6% of the deaths that occurred in prisons and jails, in the US (Clarke, 2012).

State and Jail Prisons

The death rate in state prisons is higher in comparison to the rate in jail prisons. As at 2008, state prisons recorded a death rate of 251 inmates for every 100000 of the prison population. On the other hand, jail prisons recorded 147 deaths in every 100000 of the inmate population of the jails (Clarke, 2012).

Death Rate in Relation To the Age of Inmates

Jail prisoners aged 45 years and above have a higher tendency of dying, which is 5 times higher than that of prisoners aged below 45 years. However, in the case of the inmates aged 45 years and above, the most likely cause of their deaths would be illnesses. The common illness for this category of inmates would be cancer and heart diseases. In addition, inmates aged 55 years and above had a death rate 10 times more than the rate for inmates aged between 24 and 34 years (Daniel, 2006).

Death Rates in Male and Female Inmates

In terms of sex, the mortality rate among male inmates, as at 2008, was higher than the rate among female inmates. Male prisoners recorded a death rate of 146 inmates in every 100000 of male inmate population. On the other hand, the rate was at 111 deaths for every 100000 of female inmate population in the US. This indicates the prevalence of deaths among men, with a majority of deaths from male inmates occurring as a result of suicide cases. Male inmates were more likely to die from suicide, at 1.6 times more than the likelihood of suicide among female inmates. In addition, men were 1.3 times more likely to die from cases of heart diseases than their female counterparts. However, female inmates were 1.4 times more likely to die from the remaining causes of deaths. In fact, the rate of deaths among female inmates as a result of intoxication is approximately twice the rate of intoxication deaths among their male counterparts (Clarke, 2012).

Death Rates in Black and White Inmates

The number of prisoner deaths from the white population was higher than the rate among black inmates. The death rate among white inmates was at 172 for every 100000 white inmate populations. On the other hand, the death rate among black inmates was at 123 for every 100000 of black inmate population. The rate among Hispanics was at 111 deaths for every 100000 of Hispanic inmate population in US prisons. The rate of deaths among whites due to suicide was 4 times more than the suicide rate among black inmates. This rate among whites was twice the rate among Hispanic inmates. In addition, death rates among blacks and whites as a result of heart diseases were equal but twice the rate among the Hispanic inmate population. Heart complexities account for the highest number of deaths among the Black population in US prisons. However, the rate of deaths from AIDS related infections among was prevalent among black inmates, with the rate being 4 times the rate among white inmates and double among the Hispanics.

In summary, considering the entire population of prisoners in the US and recent death statistics, one can say that the leading causal factor is the suicide. Deaths from heart diseases are second in terms of prevalence, followed by intoxication, AIDS and HIV infections, and cancer. Suicide is extremely prevalent among jail prisoners. In fact, the rate of suicide among prisoners is three times the rate of suicide in the general population of the United States.

Preventing Deaths in US Prisons- Measures and Recommendations

Deaths in prisons have been on an increase in recent years, a factor that has led to concerns from different sections of the American population. The numbers of suicides that occurred in US prisons have bypassed the rate of suicide in any other institution of whatever kind in the American community. This has led to the need to examine the points of weaknesses in within the prisons, both at management level, and the internal environment, which have continued to contribute towards the deaths. An analysis and understanding of the weaknesses will help in formulating the necessary reforms in prison and jails Department that are necessary to reduce the rate of deaths in the prisons (Clarke, 2012).

Solutions to Preventing Suicide Cases in Prisons

Suicide prevention ought to be a collaborative duty of administrative, clinical and the custodial staff, and should be a top priority in every single prison in the US. The basis of this suicide prevention strategy is a comprehensive mental health and psychiatric service delivery system. Prisons must design an effective suicide prevention program that constitutes identification, evaluation, assessment monitoring, treatment, and preventive intervention measures.

Administrative Measures

Governments must implement policies and procedures to govern prisons. Such policies must ensure an effective clinical care and suicide prevention system. The policies include a suicide assessment, monitoring and intervention strategy. Secondly, prisons must use psychotropic medication procedures. A policy that allows the provision of involuntary medical services and treatment to all inmates is necessary. Lastly, a policy that allows the hospitalization of mentally ill inmates is also necessary to reduce cases of suicide in US prisons (Daniel, 2006).

The second solution to reducing the high suicide rate in US prisons would be to initiate a suicide risk-rating program. Prison managers can use this program to identify high-risk suicidal inmates at the time of admission to the prisons. After the identification process, the prison management can have a close monitoring of the inmates. The system consists of a rating between 1 to 3, which gauges the potential and likelihood of inmates’ indulgence   in suicidal acts. The prison management usually creates a database of the inmate, which helps in monitoring the behavior of the inmate. In the event that the inmate transfers to another prison, the former prison gives the information to the new destination of the inmate (Mays & Winfree, 2008).

Administrative Management of Institutions

Prison management should avoid having suicidal inmates in segregation units. Having suicidal inmates in a segregation unit worsens the mental health of the inmates. Suicidal persons must not be left to stay alone in one secluded place. Such a situation should only happen if the victim is under close band uninterrupted supervision from a staff member of the prison.

Secondly, prison managers must consider the suicidal risk of inmates before assigning them tasks within the orison premises. For instance, it is not logical to assign an inmate with a high suicidal risk a job that requires the use of dangerous tools and substances. In addition, the placement of young and new inmates in facilities and areas that have adequate security and mental health measures could substantially reduce suicide cases (Wortley, 2002).

Thirdly, US prisons need to put in place a mentoring program for the inmates. Such a program can be an opportunity for inmates to listen to success stories of former inmates who served their jail terms successfully and went on to succeed in their lives after the jail term. Such an effort can massively reduce cases of death as a result of suicide. Most suicide cases come from inmates who have lost hope in life due to long jail sentences. Exposing such inmates to a mentoring program, inspiration and rehabilitation program can impact on the likelihood of the individual to commit suicide (Mays & Winfree, 2008).

In addition, prison facilities should have a procedure that seeks information on the mental health situation of an inmate before the shifting the inmate to another prison. This will help the receiving prison facility in identifying the ways of controlling and monitoring the inmate (Wortley, 2002).

Training of Prison Staff

Governments must invest in the training of prison officers and all other staff members of prison facilities on how to identify, monitor, and deal with suicide-prone inmates. The training should involve skills of identifying suicide prone inmates, the factors that can motivate inmates to consider committing suicide and the actions necessary to combat the vice (Mays & Winfree, 2008).

Peer Groups and Inmate Training

This is an area that most prison facilities neglect. On many occasions, inmates involve themselves in suicide attempts or successful suicides because of lack of information. Prison should implement a system that requires inmates to form groups. Inmates can share their respective experiences about life. It can also be an avenue for encouraging each other on the hope that awaits them after prison life. Prison staff members can offer training to the inmates within these small groups.

Clinical Procedures

Screening of the mental state of all inmates before their admission into prison facilities is a primary necessity. After the screening, it is also necessary to conduct another medical checkup of the mind after 7 days of the admission of the inmate. A screening process will help the prison staff in identifying the inmates that have a history of suicidal attempts. The prison management can then put such inmates on a special monitoring, counseling and treatment program.

Preventing Deaths from Heart Diseases

These deaths are common among inmates with an age above 45 years. The federal government must consider the establishment of an effective medical checkup and service provision system within the prison facilities, with most of attention to inmates above 45 years. The Federal government must supply modern and effective drugs and equipment to prison facilities (Daniel, 2006).

Preventing Deaths from HIV and AIDS

The provision of educational information on the dangers of AIDS and the prevention techniques would be essential in this instance. However, this tool has proved to be ineffective in recent years. Thus, prison facilities should consider increasing the supply of prevention facilities such as condoms to inmates. Though this will not stop the deaths by 100%, the number of deaths will reduce substantially (Daniel, 2006).

Intense Educational Programs in the First Month of Incarceration

According to the above findings, most deaths of inmates occur within the first month of the incarceration of inmates. It would be suitable, therefore, to initiate an effective guidance, counseling, and education program for all inmates within their first month of admission.

Lastly, prison facilities should initiate occupational safety measures within the facility. This will reduce cases of deaths from accidents when inmates are executing duties and assignments within the facility.


The above statistics on death rates in prison facilities, in US, is alarming. It indicates the quality of medical, counseling, and training services that inmates receive in prisons in US. The Federal government must take upon itself the responsibility of reforming the prison and rehabilitation sector. A full implementation of the above recommendations could reduce deaths in US prisons by a substantial figure.

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