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Oklahoma Prisons: Nation's Deadliest?

06-Jan-2017

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that Oklahoma's prisons could be the most dangerous prisons in the nation. According to the study, Oklahoma ranked second in the prison homicide rate as well as second in the accidental death rate--in both cases, being beaten only by states with prison populations so small that their data is considered "unreliable."

Oklahoma's prison homicide rate from 2001 to 2014 was 13 per 100,000 state and federal prison inmates--a number more than twice the national average of 5 homicides per 100,000 inmates. Only Maine had a higher homicide rate--14 per 100,000--and statisticians warn that the small sample size made that state's figures unreliable.

When it comes to accidental deaths in prisons, Oklahoma again ranks second, with an accidental death rate of 8 per 100,000--a rate nearly triple the national average. Again, the small sample size of the only state beating Oklahoma in this area--Alaska--makes its figures unreliable.

When it comes to the overall mortality rate in prison--which includes all causes of death, including homicide, accident, suicide, and natural causes--the state fares slightly better. Oklahoma is sixth in the nation overall, with a mortality rate of 324 per 100,000 inmates, compared to the national average of 255 per 100,000 inmates.

Sean Wallace, policy director for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and the former head of a group that represented prison workers said of the study, "We know that we've truly become just a warehouse for inmates in Oklahoma. We don't really offer them any programs to rehabilitate them. We barely staff our facilities. Our facilities are crumbling and falling apart. I doubt there's one person in the Oklahoma Department of Corrections who is very surprised that we rank high in the number of inmates who died in our prisons."

The issue of overcrowding and understaffing Oklahoma prisons is one we have discussed here before. Certainly, if you pack prisons past capacity and fail to provide adequate staff for supervision, intervention, and medical care, then you are going to have significant problems. And with the state's ongoing budget crisis, it seems as if change is slow in coming.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC) Public Information Officer Alex Gerszewski says one issue leading to the high mortality rates in Oklahoma prisons is an aging prison population. Because of the state's "85 Percent Rule," certain inmates must serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences before becoming parole eligible. This can keep inmates behind bars until they are of an age where they are more likely to die of age-related illnesses or pre-existing medical conditions. Gerszewski says that of the 109 Oklahoma prison inmates who died in 2015, at least 72--more than 66 percent--were over the age of 50.

Sadly, Oklahoma's inmate death problem is not exclusive to state and federal prisons. Even the local jails have high mortality rates. The Oklahoma County Jail, for example, had a record-breaking year for inmate deaths in 2016, with 12 deaths--an average of one inmate death per month.

View the Bureau of Justice Statistics prison mortality study here.



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