Prison deaths spike even before pandemic

Troubling Trend: Prison Death Rate Spiked Before Coronavirus Hit

As America marks its 50th anniversary of the “war on drugs” today, it’s evident the estimated more than $1 trillion the federal government has spent battling substances people like hasn’t curbed the demand for these illicit substances. It’s also clear the nation’s prisons — which currently house more than two million people, 1/5th of whom are in on a drug charge — are failing many prisoners, according to a report on mortality rates in state and federal prisons put out by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) this year.   

The report didn’t look at the recent spikes stemming from coronavirus outbreaks nationwide, rather, Justice Department officials were confined to studying 2018 numbers. Even with no pandemic, there was a chilling spike in prison deaths nationwide. State prisons saw about a 5% increase in deaths from 2017 to 2018. It’s not just a statistic; all told, 4,135 state prisoners lost their lives while incarcerated —  the highest recorded number since BJS began recording mortality data in 2001.

“In terms of how many people prisons are killing every year, we’re actually more draconian, more punitive than we were at the beginning of the millennium.”

Wanda Bertram

Between 2001 and 2018, 61,130 state prisoners died while behind bars across America — a 44% increase in deaths, even as the prison population only ticked up by a mere 1%. Federally, 6,744 prisoners died in the same time period, though the federal government only incarcerates 14% as states imprison. 

The major spike is, in part, because drug and alcohol abuse rates skyrocketed by 611% in the 17 year window studied. But there was also a 208% increase in homicides and a 95% spike in accidental deaths, while prisoners who took their own lives shot up by 85%, among other causes. 

While bipartisan groups of politicians in Washington and in many state legislatures have taken steps to unwind the Nixonian, tough on crime approach, those efforts have failed to trickle down to the prisons housing millions of our neighbors.   

“In terms of how many people prisons are killing every year, we’re actually more draconian, more punitive than we were at the beginning of the millennium,” Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, tells The News Station.

Most alarming, Bertram says, is the dramatic rise in state prisoner deaths associated with drug or alcohol intoxication. Most prison officials blame visitors for sneaking illegal substances into their loved ones, even as corrections staff are some of the main sources of drugs entering prisons. 

“By cracking down so hard and enforcing so heavily their restrictions on substances inside, they actually create some of the danger that leads to some of these overdoses,” she says.

The data shows the highest homicide rate in nearly two decades, along with the largest number of suicides since data collection began — suicides increased by 20% from 2017 to 2018 alone.

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The data is shocking, in part, for what it doesn’t show, according to Leah Wang, a research analyst who co-wrote a separate report for the Prison Policy Initiative examining the spike in deaths at state prisons. Wang and her co-author, Wendy Sawyer, note how data from 2020 won’t be released for a couple years due to delays in reporting. They fear “natural” deaths are going to skyrocket because coronavirus was coupled with confinement.

The data shows the highest homicide rate in nearly two decades, along with the largest number of suicides since data collection began — suicides increased by 20% from 2017 to 2018 alone.

Some of the easiest ways to reduce prison deaths is addressing overcrowding in state prisons, which increased from 1.249 million prisoners in 2001 to 1.285 million in 2018, according to the Department of Justice. Reducing these numbers through releasing sick and older prisoners should be a priority, according to Wang and Bertram.  

“I think to not care about somebody who just because they are convicted of a crime completely shows an utter lack of compassion for humanity,” Bertram says. 

It’s not just the quality of life — and lack thereof — for the incarcerated. Wang says the problem starts at the root, which is why she’s urging policy makers at all levels to reexamine their sentencing guidelines. She says it’s time to reverse the tides.  

“That’s going to prevent us from continuing to fuel mass incarceration by sending people in,” Wang says. “We have to stop that process as well.”

Prisoners are required to receive health care, but many report poor to non-existent medical care. As a result, Bertram is wary of any reform that puts more money into the criminal justice system, because she says the problem is too many humans locked in concrete and steel cages across America.   

“We have to stop that process as well.”

Leah Wang

Just as there’s a “movement of conscience” in the United States against the death penalty, Bertram argues there should also be a movement against the de facto death sentences  handed to prisoners not by a judge or jury of their peers; but by the system itself.

“You’ve got to think about the fact that these are people’s moms and dads and daughters and sons,” Bertram tells The News Station. “It’s not just the people on the inside who are gonna be hurt when their lives are taken, it’s also their whole families and their whole networks.”

Zach Wendling is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He studies political science, journalism and broadcasting. He's currently senior news editor for the campus newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan. He's focused on covering university governance and administrative affairs, among other issues, like COVID-19.

Zach Wendling is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He studies political science, journalism and broadcasting. He's currently senior news editor for the campus newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan. He's focused on covering university governance and administrative affairs, among other issues, like COVID-19.

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