Pre-COVID Rise in Prison Deaths Called Evidence of System Failure

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Illustration courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.

While COVID has been wreaking havoc across the U.S. corrections system, new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that prisons were “deadly” places long before the pandemic, says the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

Data showing a 44 percent rise in mortality rates in state and federal prisons from 2001-2018, proves that the prison system needs to greatly improve medical and mental healthcare, address the relationship between correctional officers and the health of their populations, and work with parole boards to accelerate release processes so prison doesn’t become a death sentence, the PPI said in a briefing paper released Tuesday.

“We must remember that being locked up is the punishment itself,” said the PPI. “Inhumane conditions are not supposed to be part of a prison sentence.”

Along with showing the usual trends of thousand dying in custody from major or unnamed illnesses, the data also found that there has been an increase of death from unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, accident, and drug and alcohol intoxication.

Even though the overall prison population grew by 1 percent between 2001 and 2018, the number of deaths rose 44 percent.

In 2018, there were 4,135 deaths reported in state prisons, the highest number on record since the BJS began collecting mortality data in 2001, says the Prison Policy Initiative. Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 202 to a record 344 per 1,000,000.

A 2017 RAND report on the number of deaths between 2010 and 2014 said the morality rate in prisons was 275 per 100,000, the BJS’s highest – at the time – since data collection began.

In just four years, there has been an alarming increase of deaths, instead of an improvement to the healthcare in prison and acceleration of releases that could have prevented these deaths.

The Prison Policy Initiative calls this record title a “super-lame superlative.”

To calculate mortality rates, the BJS collected data directly from state prison systems and used it to track national trends in the number, cause, and manner of deaths occurring in state prisons.

The BJS groups the mortality data in four groups: “natural,” “unnatural,” “other,” and “missing/unknown.”

“Natural” deaths are those caused by illness while “unnatural” deaths are caused by either suicide, homicide, accident, and drug/alcohol intoxication. “Other” or “missing/unknown” are deaths under pending investigation or missing a distinct cause.

Concerning the causes of deaths, the data reported an increase in all deaths caused by drug or alcohol intoxication, homicide, accident, suicide, and illness since 2001.

Drug, Alcohol-Related Deaths Rose 611 Percent

While many assume prisons are so secure, the increase of death caused by drugs and alcohol has increased by a whopping 611 percent rise in death caused by drug or alcohol intoxication.

Due to worries about contraband, prisons do take precautions like with checking mail.

Nevertheless, despite those precautions, much of the contraband found in corrections facilities comes from those working there, reported the Prison Policy Initiative in a 2018 study.

That study found that in 2018 alone, there were a dozen of instances were staff were fired, arrested, or sentenced with smuggling drugs and other items into these facilities.

On May 28, a Philadelphia corrections officer was indicted on charges of accepting more than $11,000 in bribes to smuggle narcotics – along with other contraband – to the inmates, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Many in prison are lacking proper treatment for their substance use disorders and are being taken advantage of by these corrections staff to charge high prices for drugs like Suboxone or potent synthetic cannabinoids, says the PPI.

Rather than trying to help these prisoners, prison workers are contributing to a harmful cycle of addiction that has caused this disturbingly high death rate.

“Instead of improving the quality of healthcare and treatment for drug addiction, prisons are imposing costly restrictions on mail and visitation and incentivizing their own staff to carry out illegal activity,” said the policy paper.

Homicide rose by 208 percent, reaching a record high of 120 deaths in 2018.

The homicide rate was highest for incarcerated people aged 55 and older, as they were twice as likely to be murdered as anyone aged 25-44.

This rise proves that even though prisons are secure, they are very unsafe for those inside, said the paper’s authors.

Suicide increased by 85 percent over the two decades in the BJS review.

Mental Illness Adds to Risk

Other studies corroborate the high levels of mental illness among incarcerated populations.

Individuals with serious mental illness are 10 times more likely to be in jails and state prisons than in state mental hospitals, with an estimated 383,200 inmates with serious mental illnesses in jail or state prisons, compared to the approximate 38,000 individuals with serious mental illnesses in state mental hospitals, reports a 2016 study from the Treatment Advocacy Center.

“Multiple studies indicate as many as half of all inmate suicides are committed by the estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of inmates with serious mental illness,” researchers in the 2016 study concluded.

Prison is not only mentally difficult for those with mental health needs, but for anyone going through incarceration, says the Prison Policy Initiative.

In a 2001 report, Craig Haney, an expert on the psychological effects of imprisonment and prison isolation, explains that adapting to incarceration is almost always difficult and the psychological effects of it can vary from person to person, but few are completely unchanged or unscathed by their experience.

“At the very least, prison is painful, and incarcerated persons often suffer long-term consequences from having been subjected to pain, deprivation, and extremely atypical patterns and norms of living and interacting with others,” Haney said.

The Prison Police Initiative points out that while the BJS data doesn’t include death rates by sentence length, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that longer sentences contribute to a sense of hopelessness, forcing incarcerated people into harmful situations.

This increase in suicide can show the possibility that a longer incarceration increases the possibility of having a mental health crisis as those incarcerated, said the PPI.

This increase also shows that correctional officers are not acting swiftly to prevent suicide and self-harm, as they’re failing to recognize mental health warning signs.

On May 23, an incarcerated man serving a life sentence with a history of mental illness and self-harm, including multiple recorded suicide attempts, died from a self-inflicted open wound to his stomach wall at a Montana State Prison, reported KXLH.

He was a part of a group of prisoners involved in a lawsuit against the Montana Department of Corrections and the state prison concerning the treatment of incarcerated people with mental illness.

His death, like many others could have been prevented if prisons were well equipped to help those in an unhealthy mental state.

“Prison is basically a mental health crisis in and of itself, and too many incarcerated people contemplate and/or complete suicide.”

The BJS data also found that illness is still the most common cause of death, with a death rate increase of 27 percent.

“Incarceration can add 10 or 15 years to someone’s physiology and take two year off their life expectancy per year served, alarming statics when considered alongside longer sentences and high cost of health care for older people,” said the PPI.

This increase is a result of the neglect that occurs in prisons concerning health.

The policy paper describes how there are often reports of inmates suffering during the summer due to the lack of air conditioning, which can exacerbate chronic diseases, counteract medications, and increase the risk of dehydration and heat stroke.

Death by Medical Neglect

One instance of neglect is the case of John Kleutsch, an inmate at Louisiana’s Monroe Correctional Complex, who died of a festering abdominal wound that the state Department of Corrections staff failed to properly treat, says the Seattle Times.

In 2018, he died of septic shock, acute pancreatitis, and a perforated intestine, which were never diagnosed at the prison.

His death came as he was recovering from outpatient cancer surgery. His incision was not healing properly, but according to a lawsuit filed by his widow, claims that the former medical director at the prison and others dialed to properly treat him.

In order for deaths like Kleitsch’s, prisons need to address their issue of neglect.

With these instances of neglect, the mortality rate that is being recorded now and will be known by the BJS later, it will be no surprise how many have and will die of COVID related deaths.

“The systemic neglect of illness and aging in prison populations isn’t natural at all,” declared PPI.

Finally, accidental deaths went up by 95 percent.

Recommendation by the Prison Policy Initiative to reduce prison mortality rates include:

      • Reexamine parole policies to speed release of prisoners who no longer pose a threat to public safety;
      • Reexamine sentencing policies to curb the lengthy prison terms that only worsen physical health, mental health, and preparation for reentry;
      • Provide high-quality treatment for health care, in particular for substance abuse disorders; and
      • Improve prison environments.

“Had states taken these actions years ago to reduce other dangers in prisons, we might not have seen record mortality in 2018 – or for that matter, in 2020,” the paper concluded.

The authors of the paper were Wendy Sawyer, Research Director at the Prison Policy Initiative, and Leah Wang, a PPI research analyst.

Gabriela Felitto is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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