Mortality In State & Federal Prisons: 4,513 Prisoners Died In U.S. Facilities In 2018

May 3, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

In 2018, a total of 4,135 state prisoners died in publicly or privately operated prisons, and an additional 378 federal prisoners died in facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), according to a report published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The first number represents an increase of 5% from 2017, and is the highest level reported since the BJS began gathering data on mortality in state prisons in 2001. Deaths of federal prisoners decreased nearly 1% from 2017 to 2018. State prisons had a preliminary count of 3,293 deaths in 2019, based on data from 49 of the 50 state departments of corrections.

But, the number one cause of deaths in both state and federal prisons in 2018 remained illnesses. Even if you consider data from 2001 to 2018, it shows that 87% of state prison deaths and 90% of federal prison deaths occurred due to illness. Suicides accounted for 6% of state prison deaths and almost 5% of federal prison deaths over the same period. However, the number of state prisoners who committed suicide in 2018 was up by a sharp 20% from 2017, marking the highest number of suicides that BJS has recorded in 18 years of collecting mortality data, it said in the report.

State prisoners had a lower overall mortality rate when compared with adult U.S. residents in 2018 — 319 per 100,000 vs 419 per 100,000 (with the data adjusted for differences in age, sex, and race or ethnicity between the two populations). But, they were “slightly more likely” to die of cancer, liver disease, and suicide and more than twice as likely to die from homicide than the adjusted population of adult U.S. residents, the report added. In fact, 10 in 100,000 state prisoners died from homicide in 2018, the highest homicide rate in state prisons since 2001. The rate of death by homicide among state prisoners was more than twice the rate when compared with adult U.S. residents.

Between 2001 and 2018, the total number of state prisoners in custody increased 1%, while the number of deaths in state prisons rose 44%. In terms of race, even though they made up less than a third of the state prison population, White prisoners accounted for more than half of all deaths in 2018.

The suicide rates among those in federal prisons were less than those in state prisons from 2001 to 2018 — 11 suicides per 100,000 vs 17 per 100,000. When you look at data for just 2018, though, the suicide rate for federal prisoners was 19 per 100,000, up from 16 per 100,000 in 2017. The rate at which federal prisoners died of illness was also at its lowest since 2012 at 190 deaths per 100,000. It was at 182 per 100,000 in 2012.

Here are a few other key findings when it comes to state and federal prisoners, as listed in the report:

  • In 2018, a total of 22 state prisoners died from AIDS-related illnesses, a 92% decrease from 2001 (275 deaths)
  • From 2001 to 2018, a total of 1,258 state prisoners, or 2% of all deaths in state prisons, were due to homicide
  • Cancer and heart disease accounted for 53% of all state prison deaths from 2001 to 2018
  • Unnatural causes, including suicide, homicide, drug or alcohol intoxication, and accidents, accounted for 17% of deaths in state prisons in 2018
  • The mortality rate for state prisoners due to cancer in 2018 (95 deaths per 100,000 state prisoners) was the highest since 2001
  • In state prisons, the number of deaths and mortality rate of females increased by more than 37% between 2017 and 2018
  • Prisoners age 55 or older made up 34% of all state prison deaths in 2001 but nearly double that (61%) in 2018
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for 646 (1%) of all deaths in state prisons from 2001 to 2018
  • In state prisons from 2001 to 2018, white prisoners had the highest average annual mortality rate for all causes of death other than AIDS
  • Over one-third of deaths in state prisons occurred in the states with the largest prison systems in 2018: Texas (505 deaths), California (449), and Florida (440)
  • Ten states had fewer than 10 prisoner deaths in 2018, including North Dakota, which had none
  • The average annual mortality rate due to suicide was lowest in Alabama and Kentucky (9 deaths per 100,000), followed by Florida and North Carolina (10 per 100,000)

Mortality In Local Jails In 2018

The BJS also released a separate report on mortality in local jails. A total of 1,120 inmates reportedly died in local jails in 2018, which is an increase of nearly 2% from the 1,099 deaths reported in 2017. It was also the highest number of deaths reported in local jails since the BJS began collecting mortality data on local jails in 2000. As of July 10, 2020, the preliminary number of deaths reported by local jails in 2019 was 1,088.

Of the 1,120 deaths in local jails in 2018, a total of 335 were suicides, 290 were due to heart disease, and 178 were due to drug or alcohol intoxication. Deaths in local jails due to drug or alcohol intoxication increased almost 19% from 2017 to 2018, and 381% since 2000.

For local jails too, illnesses accounted for a significant portion of all deaths reported. Slightly less than half of all deaths were due to illnesses (46%), such as heart disease, liver disease, and cancer, the report said. But suicide also continued to be a leading cause of death in 2018, accounting for almost 30%.

Inmates in local jails also had a lower overall mortality rate in 2018 (146 per 100,000 jail inmates) than the United States resident population adjusted for sex, race or ethnicity, and age (322 per 100,000 U.S. residents age 18 or older). Jail inmates were less likely than adult U.S. residents to die from all causes of death except suicide and homicide in 2018. Jail inmates were twice as likely to commit suicide in 2018 (45 per 100,000 jail inmates) than adults in the adjusted U.S. resident population (22 per 100,000 adult U.S. residents).

However, the homicide mortality rate was the same between the two populations in 2018. About 46% of inmates who died of homicide from 2000 to 2018 were being held for a violent offense.

In terms of race, about 25% of deceased local jail inmates n 2018 were Black, and 13% were Hispanic. Inmates who were age 55 or older had the highest mortality rate of all age groups across all causes of death from 2000 and 2018.

The BJS reports say: Findings are from BJS’s data collection on Mortality in Correctional Institutions (MCI; formerly the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program). The MCI is the only national statistical collection that obtains comprehensive information about deaths among prisoners and jail inmates in the custody of adult correctional facilities.