Alarming Rise in Prison Deaths Exposes System Failure

Interview with Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The Covid pandemic has shed light on hazardous conditions in U.S. prisons and jails, where 2,700 people have died thus far due to the virus. But a new report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, using the latest pre-Covid data from 2018, focuses on other causes of deaths in prison. That year, state prisons reported 4,135 deaths, not including 25 inmates who were executed.

This is the largest number of inmate deaths on record since the government began collecting mortality data in 2001. Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people. The Bureau divides the deaths into two categories, “natural” and “unnatural” causes. The former includes inmates who died of illness, which is about 75 percent of the total. “Unnatural” deaths are those attributed to suicide, homicide, an accident, and drug or alcohol intoxication.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative. Here she summarizes the data and expectations about what the Biden administration could do to address this alarming rise in the number of prison deaths.

WANDA BERTRAM: What we see in this new data is that even though state prison populations only increased by 1 percent between 2001 and 2018, state prison deaths increased by 44 percent.

MELINDA TUHUS: So does Prison Policy Initiative and/or the Bureau of Justice Statistics have any analysis about why this is happening?

WANDA BERTRAM: It’s very complicated. There’s a bunch of different causes. For one thing, I think everyone should know that the most common cause of death in state prisons is of illness. State prisons are not delivering quality health care, even though prisoners have a constitutional right to health care. Many of them died of COVID-19 last year. Many more are going to be dying just of the diseases that people in prison are predisposed to have more than the rest of us: heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, Hep C., things like that. Besides that, though, we’re seeing a huge spike in particular in deaths from drug and alcohol intoxication. And I consider these to be War on Drugs deaths.

The War on Drugs turned 50 years this year. We’ve spent 50 years criminalizing and throwing in prison people whose only crime was using a drug that was classified as illegal. I think there’s a few reasons I think these deaths are going up behind bars. The first is that we’re putting people with substance use issues into facilities that have no interest in taking care of them. The second is that simply being in a prison setting means you’re more likely to be using drugs that are extremely dangerous, because they have to be smuggled in.

And the third thing I want to say is that they know this is going on, and they’re actually trying to turn this spike in drug-related deaths in prisons to their advantage by saying it’s the family and friends of incarcerated people that are bringing in these substances.

Year after year, we see state prisons put out press releases that say, “We found instances of contraband in someone’s letter from their mom” or “We found it in a dictionary that was mailed into the prison, and that’s why our new policy is that we’re no longer going to allow postal mail.” “We’re no longer going to allow books.” “We’re going to curtail in-person visits, or ban in-person visits.”

This is happening in so many places – New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa – the list goes on. We need to look into the causes of these deaths behind bars. We need to get people health care and importantly, we need to resist the narrative coming out of prison systems that this is somehow the fault of family members.

MELINDA TUHUS: And even if that’s the response of the prisons, it seems like cutting an incarcerated person off from family members with calls or letters, or even not allowing books, could drive the increase in suicide, if they feel completely cut off an hopeless about maintaining those ties. Do you think there’s anything to that?

WANDA BERTRAM: Absolutely. I don’t think you have to be Einstein to understand that if you’re in a situation where you are confined, you’re isolated, you’re desperate, and all of a sudden you can no longer communicate with your family or see your family members in person, or get things they mail to you. That’s really going to wear you down. It’s going to erode your sense of stability and it’s probably going to make it more likely that you do desperate things, like use drugs.

MELINDA TUHUS: Yeah, it’s like a vicious circle. So, these data as we’ve said, ended in 2018 when President Trump was in office. And, of course, President Biden has a history of being tough on crime. But has anything changed with the new administration? Do you foresee that maybe some of these deaths will drop because of anything the new administration is doing, or are they continuing the same policies?

WANDA BERTRAM: Unfortunately, I don’t really expect any kind of life-saving policies from Joe Biden’s administration. Not just because President Biden has this prior history of being tough on crime, but just the things we’ve seen from his administration so far. Of course, we’re talking about federal prisons, and President Biden doesn’t have a lot of power over state prison systems. There’s a limited number of ways he can influence state prisons. But his Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons, which run federal prisons, they’re doing a number of things that are disturbing to me.

One is that they appear to be proceeding with recalling people who were released to home confinement during COVID-19 back to prison. So people who were told during COVID-19, we think you are safe to return home. We’re letting you go home, all of a sudden they’ve gotten the rug pulled out from under them. People who were rebuilding their lives all of a sudden they have to go back to federal prison. That’s not safe. The pandemic is not over in prisons. Vaccination rates in prisons are still very low, and yet the Biden administration is doing this.

I’ve also seen the Bureau of Prisons signal recently that it intends to expand a program that would ban postal mail in federal prisons. This is precisely the thing I was talking about a minute ago, prisons pretending that postal mail is some sort of giant threat that deserves to be taken away at the first sign that contraband may be coming into the facilities. So, no, unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of high hopes that people are going to be treated more humanely under this administration.

For more information on the Prison Policy Initiative, visit


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