7,000 a Year Die in U.S. Prisons

Sometimes we focus more on prison abuses abroad than we do at home. The first is not more important than the second as Ira Robbins points out in the Baltimore Sun.

While the alleged human rights abuses of prisoners detained in Guantánamo Bay and the Middle East have sparked widespread criticism and debate in this country and abroad, surprisingly little attention has been focused on the treatment of citizens imprisoned within our borders. Each year, approximately 7,000 Americans die in U.S. prisons and jails. Some of these deaths are from natural causes, but many more result from mental disorders left undiagnosed and diseases left untreated.

The abhorrent quality of correctional health care not only violates prisoners' constitutional rights, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars and threatens the general health of communities surrounding these facilities. Understanding why prisoners die is an essential first step in identifying the major pitfalls of our health care system. Passing legislation to correct these problems is the crucial next step. Therefore, Congress should extend and strengthen the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, or DICRA, before it expires at the end of this year.

Say Hello to Dicra:

DICRA created a systematic program for tracking all deaths in custody, highlighting prisons with the highest percentages of prisoner deaths, and facilitating the improvement of prisoner health care. Under the new reporting scheme, all states receiving funds from certain federal grant programs must report, on a standardized form, the demographic profiles of all dead prisoners and the specific circumstances of each death in custody.

....DICRA is a perfect starting place for major prison reform regarding preventable deaths. Yet it is only a starting point. Congress must put the data to good use by enacting legislation to create national standards, ensure greater accountability in the reporting of prison deaths, require more expert analysis on the ways to prevent these deaths, and provide additional training for prison officials on how to respond to sick and dying prisoners. Skeptics should look to Massachusetts as an example for how such programs can be effective. The mortality rate in Massachusetts prisons became one of the lowest in the country when state officials used DICRA data to train workers to identify inmates who are at risk for serious health problems or suicide.

The Bottom Line:

The divisiveness of prisoners' rights as a political issue is no excuse for congressional inaction. Continued DICRA reporting is essential to making prisons a more humane part of the justice system and to ensuring that the government fulfills its duty to provide proper medical care to prisoners.

Do your part to make sure the next Congress listens.

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    Deaths in Custody (none / 0) (#1)
    by JSN on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 07:40:52 AM EST
    7000 deaths per year in custody appears to be too large even if you include all prisons, jails and police departments. The BJS 2005 report is the most recent I can find and they give data for 2001 and 2002 for jails and prisons. In 2002 the total for jails was 978 and the total for prisons was 2,946. This does not include police department lockups or drunk tanks.

    The reference to the report is;


    It is very important to continue to spotlight this problem. This is criminal indifference folks. The death rate per 100,000 prisoners varies over far too wide a range for prisons. AIDS is a major problem for prisons and the some legislatures refuse to provide the needed funds for proper medical care.

    Some county jails and local police departments have very high suicide rates often associated with drunks.  They finally closed the death trap at Des Moines City Jail after many years of trying. One of my friends worked for the ambulance service in Des Moines and he told me he had personally cut down three suicides in that jail in one year and there were more suicides than that.

    off-topic (none / 0) (#2)
    by skippybkroo on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 11:19:31 AM EST
    hi jeralyn, off topic, but congrats on being a a finalist in the in the 2006 weblog awards.

    it's an honor to be singled out, and any blog that gets to the finals should be very, very proud.

    we know that skippy sure is!



    good spotlight (none / 0) (#3)
    by HeadScratcher on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 11:41:58 AM EST
    While even one preventable death is too many, it would be better if we had more accurate statistics and where the problems lie.

    But this is a good topic for reform...

    Sort of off topic...My 97 year old grandmother died 5 years ago of cancer. After she died one of the doctors asked me if she was a smoker. She was insistent that my grandmother had a smoking related death. She was 97! Point: More accurate statistics and less ancedotes.

    This number don't suprise me (none / 0) (#4)
    by plumberboy on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 05:05:33 PM EST
    When you take into account 1 out of every 32 americans is tied up in the legal system this figure of 7,000 deaths a year is not surprising at all, one of the major things that could be done is to get rid of ridiclous laws.The less people in legal system the less that die there.People also generally recieve better medical attention out of jail than in and I would think they would be less likely to commit suicide.

    If my math skills still survive (none / 0) (#5)
    by Che's Lounge on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 05:57:15 PM EST
    I believe that comes to an overall death rate of 318.2/100,000 inmates. The average age (in CA prisons) is around 37. The national death rate for the age group 25-44 years is 177.8/100K. In addition, accidents, especially MVA's account for a significant number of deaths in this age group, into which prisoners would not fall.  Therefore we have a problem, not only with the violence in prison, but also the quality of healthcare.

    If my math is right.  

    This article deals with California but is nonetheless disturbing, yet enlightening.

    The percentage of California inmates age 60 and older has tripled in the past 25 years, according to a Record analysis of data from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. These older prisoners now comprise more than 2 percent of California's total prison population. In 1981, elderly prisoners accounted for less than 1 percent of the total prison population.

    BTW I calculated (none / 0) (#6)
    by Che's Lounge on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 06:02:23 PM EST
    using 2.2 million overall prison population, so I am in no way touting this data as statistically accurate. Math on the fly. But I think the point is made.

    Thank you for your time.

    The 2.2 million is combined prison and jail. (none / 0) (#7)
    by JSN on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 08:35:43 PM EST
    The death rates in jail are lower than those for prison according to the BJS report..