Bureau of Justice Statistics Report: Who is Dying in Custody and Why?
Date:  08-18-2015

Suicide is the leading cause of death among people in prison
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2013 - Statistical Tables, provides valuable information concerning deaths occurring in American jails and prisons. Sadly, there has been a steady increase in deaths while in custody over the past three years and the leading cause of death has been suicide. This is not shocking because jails and prisons have become the dumping ground for the mentally ill, but it does bring attention the urgent need to provide mental health treatment, rather than incarceration, for those who need it the most.

Highlights from the report include:

Mortality in local jails

  • Local jail inmate deaths increased 1%, from 958 deaths in 2012 to 967 deaths in 2013 (table 1).

  • Suicides in local jails increased 9%, from 300 suicides in 2012 to 327 in 2013.

  • Jail inmate deaths due to liver disease decreased 35%, from 29 deaths in 2012 to 19 in 2013.

  • Drug or alcohol intoxication deaths in local jails increased 23%, from 57 deaths in 2012 to 70 in 2013.

  • Illness-related deaths accounted for 50% of all inmate deaths in local jails in 2013. Heart disease continued to be the leading cause of illness-related inmate deaths in local jails in 2013 (table 2).

  • Suicide was the leading cause of death in local jails in 2013 (34% of all jail deaths) and has been the leading cause of death in local jails each year since 2000.

    The suicide rate increased from 40 suicides per 100,000 local jail inmates in 2012 to 46 suicides per 100,000 local jail inmates in 2013 (table 3).

    Decedent characteristics

  • In 2013, a total of 843 male and 124 female inmates died in local jails (table 4).

  • The typical jail inmate who died in 2013 was male (87%), white (54%), age 35 or older (70%), and in custody for fewer than 7 days (40%) (table 5).

  • The mortality rate for Hispanics was 135 per 100,000 local jail inmates in 2013. Due to changes in measurement, this rate should not be compared to rates in previous years (table 6). (See Methodology.)

    Cause of death and demographics

  • More than half (60%) of all suicides in jails from 2000 to 2013 involved inmates who were age 25 to 44 (table 7).

  • From 2000 to 2013, the number of male jail inmate deaths (12,092) was nearly 8 times the number of female inmate deaths (1,630).

  • Regardless of race or Hispanic origin, there was little variation in the average annual homicide rate (4 to 6 homicides per 100,000 state prisoners) for state prisoners between 2001 and 2013.

  • From 2001 to 2013, prisoners age 55 or older were 3 to 9 times more likely to die of an accident than younger prisoners.

    Deaths by jurisdiction

  • Every state department of corrections reported at least one prisoner death in 2013 (table 25).

  • The prisoner death rate by state varied from 115 deaths per 100,000 to 628 deaths per 100,000 prisoners. The median state-level death rate among prisoners was 273 deaths per 100,000 state prisoners (table 26).

    Cause of death by state
  • California’s 4,790 prisoner deaths from 2001 to 2013 represent more than 11% of the total deaths (42,157). During this period, almost a third of all state prisoner deaths from drug or alcohol intoxication were in California (174 of 546 deaths) (table 27).

  • Overall mortality rates and mortality rates by state and by cause of death may not be directly compared between states due to differences in age, sex, race or Hispanic origin, and other decedent characteristics (table 28).

    Rates by cause and decedent characteristics
  • The illness mortality rate increased to 269 per 100,000 prisoners in 2013, up from 262 per 100,000 in 2012 (appendix table 6).

  • The prisoner cancer mortality rate has increased every year between 2008 and 2013 (appendix table 7).

  • The prisoner heart disease mortality rate was relatively stable between 2003 and 2013, fluctuating between 64 and 67 deaths per 100,000 prisoner deaths each year (appendix table 8).

    Read the full report here.