When the Supreme Court of the United States declared death punishment unconstitutional in 1972, New York state had been killing people since 1608. It is astonishing to think about how many people were put to death by the state during that time period: 1,130 people. Despite how appallingly high that figure appears to be, more people have died while in state custody in the last decade alone: 1,278 individuals. Every three days, a person dies in a New York prison, according to this statistic. According to the definition of “death by incarceration,”:
there have been 7,504 convicts who died in state prisons in the 35 years since the state began recording data in 1976.
In an October 2021 study conducted by Columbia University’s Center for Justice, the mortality toll inside state prisons was highlighted for the first time in the United States. The research team of Melissa Tanis and Cameron Rasmussen revealed a plethora of discrepancies in the causes of mortality, particularly among people of different races and ages, in addition to the startling number of deaths. As a result, the authors divided them into groups based on age, service time, and race in an attempt to identify trends. Following a discussion of how the fatalities affected families, the authors finished by making various recommendations to help reverse the trend.
Death toll rising
In 1976, thirty inmates died in New York prisons as a result of their conditions behind bars. As of 2019, the number had increased by 273 percent, reaching 112. Prisoner mortality did not begin to climb considerably until the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic ravaged the state’s jail population, accounting for nearly 65 percent of all prisoner deaths in the state. According to the report, the majority of individuals who died were between the ages of 25 and 44, accounting for 68 percent of all AIDS-related deaths in the country.
Since then, the number of deaths in that age range has consistently decreased.
Unfortunately, as New York’s prisoner population has aged the number of deaths for those 55 and older has accelerated, “with 40% of all deaths behind bars of people 55 and older happening in just the last ten years,”the study reported.
As an illustration of the paradigm shift, the authors point out that, between 1980 and 2010, mortality actually declined by 7%, while the number of deaths among persons aged 55 and older soared by 504%. Since the 1980s, deaths in all other age groups—under 25, 25 to 39, and 40 to 54—have decreased in every decade, with the exception of the 1990s, which saw an increase in deaths due to the AIDS epidemic. The authors ascribed the upward trend to more draconian sentencing guidelines as well as declining rates of parole eligibility in the United States.
As a result of serving longer sentences, people who have been detained for 15 years or more have died at a higher rate than those who have been incarcerated for less than 15 years. Those figures skyrocketed in the decade following the millennium. In the 1990s, convicts serving 15 years or more were “only 3.8 percent of all deaths,” according to the CDC. According to the findings of the survey, they accounted for 32 percent of the population in the last decade. Overall, there has been a 258 percent increase in the number of people serving sentences of 15 years or more since the 1990s, and a frightening 777 percent increase since the 1980s, according to the data.
“each year a person is incarcerated reduces their life expectancy by two years.”according to a study conducted in 2016 by Christopher Wildeman,
Data Sufficiency Is a Problem
The study’s investigation of racial differences in the 7,504 deaths in New York prisons was limited by a lack of data on some of the participants. However, of the prisoners for whom data was available, 71 percent were either Black or white in color. Less than 1% of the population identified as Asian or Native American, with the remaining 21% classified as “other” or not classified at all. It was determined by the study that “Black prisoner deaths accounted for anywhere between 37 percent and 58 percent of all deaths behind bars,” with the AIDS epidemic accounting for significantly more Black prisoner deaths than white prisoners, around 70 percent higher than white prisoners.
A total of 48 percent of the state’s total prison population is made up of black inmates, and their death rate is equal to their population size. Outside of prisons, Black citizens make up only 18 percent of the state’s total population outside of prisoners. Whites accounted for 77 percent of fatalities outside of prisons in 2018, while black people accounted for 14 percent of all deaths in the state. However, black people accounted for 45 percent of all deaths within state prisons, according to data from the state Department of Health in 2018.
According to the analysis conducted by the Center, the trends for the 2020s appear to be more of the same. Among those who died in 2020, “55 percent of the 98 deaths were older people,” and “29 percent of the total number of deaths in 2020” were those who had served 15 years or more.
The study also discovered an unanticipated yet detrimental effect on the relatives of persons who are detained. A public health organization’s report published in 2021 found that “experience of the incarceration of a family member decreased life expectancies between 2.6-4.6 years” for family members who were not incarcerated. In their study, the researchers discovered that prolonged incarceration had a greater impact on more family members over a longer period of time, and that overall markers of well-being and health had been significantly reduced.
The authors of the report proposed four areas where the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) should concentrate its efforts in order to reverse the trend of prisoner deaths in the state. The Elder Parole Bill (S15/A3475 A), which would make nearly 1,000 elder convicts eligible for parole, is one of the first measures they are advocating for. They point out that the bill would not automatically release inmates, but rather requires a “meaningful review and evaluation by the Parole Board” before they may be released.
Second, rather than continuously refusing prisoners parole, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision should explore boosting the parole rate. The authors of the study advocate for the adoption of the Fair and Timely Parole Act (S1415/A4231A), which would enable “more meaningful parole reviews for incarcerated people who are already parole eligible,” according to the study’s authors. The bill intends to place greater emphasis on the individual’s “current risk and rehabilitation” rather than his or her criminal record.
Specifically, these two acts compel the state Parole Board to enhance its manpower in order to conduct sufficient evaluations and assessments of individuals who are being released from prison.
Finally, they recommended that DOCCS address the COVID-19 pandemic and remove barriers that prevent convicts from having meaningful ties with and bonds with their families after they are released. One other piece of legislation, A4250A, would restrict the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from lowering visitation privileges or replacing in-person visits with video visits. This measure was passed by the state Senate in 2021 and is currently awaiting Governor Kathy Hochul’s signature on it (D).