What A Mysterious Mystery – Soaring Number Of Deaths In US Prisons

That the United States – arguably – imprisons too many people could be true. It isn’t that the places are chock full of non-violent drug offenders tho’. Most are indeed there for violence. The country’s just a violent place perhaps. This does not excuse The Guardian’s latest worry though, the rising number of deaths in the American prison system.

Why are so many people dying in US prisons and jails?

Hmm, yes, well, why? The subhead is:

The number of Americans dying while incarcerated has surged while the US prison population has increased by 500% over the last 40 years

It’s not why it’s because. Later we’re told:

Surges in the number of Americans dying while incarcerated have occurred against a backdrop of an increase in the US prison population by 500% over the last 40 years. Based on the latest national figures available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4,980 prisoners in US correctional facilities died in 2014, a nearly 3% increase from 2013. In state prisons, the mortality rate was 275 for every 100,000 people, the highest since data collection began in 2001.

It’s not a backdrop, it’s because. Because of this:


source: tradingeconomics.com

Note that the prison rate is quoted per hundred thousand, the chart is showing the general population per thousand. The death rate in prison is a quarter to a third of the death rate in the general population.

But, you know, obviously, lots of old people in the general population where that death rate is going to be higher. What we’d really like to see is the death rate for the same age group as the prison population. Which can be sorta and roughly plucked out of this:

Death by age group

Prison populations are overwhelmingly male, so that’s the group to look at. And then, well, take your pick really. What do we think the median age of the prison population is? Aha!

This article provides a demographic exposition of the changes in the U.S prison population during the period of mass incarceration that began in the late twentieth century. By drawing on data from the Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities (1974–2004) for inmates 17–72 years of age (N = 336), we show that the age distribution shifted upward dramatically: Only 16 percent of the state prison population was 40 years old or older in 1974; by 2004, this percentage had doubled to 33 percent with the median age of prisoners rising from 27 to 34 years old.

That’s a little old, latest data is 2004. This is new data but it’s the Federal prisons, not the state where the bulk of the population is:

Age of prison population – Federal

As we put it in a comment on The Guardian article itself:

I’d say the large number of deaths in US prisons is mostly because there’s lots of people in US prisons. Sure, that incarceration rate is a problem that should be solved. But the death rate doesn’t seem out of the ordinary at all.