Highest Prison Death Rates Ever Recorded Are Signs of Long-Standing Structural Issues

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US federal and state prisons saw a 42 percent spike in inmate deaths from 4,200 in 2019 to 6,100 in 2020. In a January 2022 article for his Substack newsletter The Column, Adam Johnson examined this rising death toll and the lack of media coverage it has garnered. As he points out, the surrounding context for this jump in prisoner deaths only makes the trend more concerning. For one, a reduction in admissions caused a drop in the total prison population by 10 percent (from 608,206 to 549,622) during the same time period. After adjusting for mortality rate due to the lower overall prison population, the actual rise in inmate deaths over this period jumps to 61 percent, the largest increase in prison deaths ever recorded.

Corporate news media coverage of this alarming trend has been sparse. Instead, most coverage of the topic is produced by organizations pushing for criminal justice reform as well local papers like the San Quentin News. Reuters published one article in October 2020 on the increasing death rates in prison, but the basis of the reporting was original data Reuters staff collected from public record requests. Most mainstream coverage of deaths in prison looked only at the rates regarding COVID-19. As Johnson pointed out in his article, NPR was the lone exception with their January 22, 2022 report about the newly released BJS statistics, but Johnson argued that even this report understated how shocking the rise really was. The problem with mainstream coverage only focusing on COVID-19 related deaths is that it implies that these death rates are an isolated problem that only came to be because of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It misses the broader institutional issue at hand.

Source: Adam Johnson, “New Data Shows 61% Rise in U.S. Prison Deaths in 2020. Only One (1) Media Outlet Reported On It.” The Column, January 28, 2022.

Student Researcher: Isa Chudzik (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)