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AskNC: How many people die in our jails and prisons annually?

This article is part of our AskNC initiative designed to put the public back in public policy. We want to answer your questions about North Carolina government, policy, and politics. Have a question? Submit it at the end of the article.

After four staff deaths in Pasquotank Correctional Institution in 2017 and 38 inmate deaths across the state, North Carolina has seen new scrutiny on its prison system and prison-related deaths. With roughly 38,000 offenders in 56 federal and state-run institutions, the state ranks 41st in the United States for the most incarcerated adults with only 10 states having larger incarcerated populations (including Washington, D.C.).

Recently, one of our readers wanted to know more about deaths in North Carolina’s prisons and jails. Reader Monica Crayton asked, “How many people die in our jails and prisons annually?”

The most recent data show that from 2005 to 2014, a total of 873 prisoners died from a wide variety of causes. Averaging about 87 deaths per year, deaths in North Carolina prisons peaked in 2008 with 117 and were at their lowest in 2005 with 69 deaths.

What is causing these deaths? By far, the most common cause of death is illness, both nationally and in North Carolina prisons. Between 2001 and 2014, 1,090 people died from various illnesses, 37 from suicide, 18 from accidents, 13 from homicide, and four deaths were due to drugs or alcohol.

Staff deaths in North Carolina are relatively rare compared to inmate deaths, with one every few years, typically due to accidents. There was a sharp spike in 2017, however, after the attempted prison break at Pasquotank, leading to reviews of safety procedures across the state.

Putting it in context

Between 2001 and 2014, 50,785 inmates died across the United States in state and federal prisons. The vast majority of these (45,640) were in state prisons. As in North Carolina, most of those were illness-related, accounting for 87 percent of all deaths.

After those caused by illness, death by suicide was most common with 2,826 deaths caused by suicide. Another 450 inmate deaths between 2001 and 2014 were accidents, 845 were homicides, and 595 were caused by drug or alcohol intoxication.

In total, North Carolina accounted for nearly 2 percent of national inmate deaths during those 14 years.

Correctional officer deaths are much rarer, with 113 reported between 1999 and 2008, leading to an average of 11 per year. In a report by the National Institutes of Health and U.S. National Library of Medicine, these deaths are separated into four categories: assaults and violent acts, transportation-related, falls, and other causes. The report finds that 80 percent of all correctional officer fatalities in the U.S. between 1999 and 2008 were due to assaults, violent acts, and transportation-related fatalities.

asknc prisons
Source: U.S. Correctional Officers Killed or Injured on the Job

Preventative measures

While inmate deaths have decreased since their peak in 2008, the sudden employee deaths last year have brought renewed interest in safety, both for employees and offenders.

After four employee deaths in October of 2017 at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, this new interest has resulted in evaluations by the National Institute of Corrections. Their report cited under staffing and lax security as the main cause for many injuries and fatalities and recommended several changes to address the issues.

These changes include spending $12.5 million on body cameras for guards and other employees. Other proposed changes include increased hiring, reviews of equipment, and better training for employees. Most of these changes are intended to primarily aid employee safety, though the increased security measures should protect prisoners as well.

Aislinn Antrim

Aislinn, a senior from High Point, North Carolina, is majoring in reporting and minoring in English and women’s studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She interned last summer with Education NC and is senior writer with the Daily Tar Heel. She plans to pursue a career in reporting.