Oklahoma CURE

Ensuring that prisons are used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that prisoners have all the resources they need to turn their lives around.
GET INVOLVED

Connect with us

JOIN THE CAMPAIGN

Oklahoma inmate deaths jump 71 percent in five years, records show

May 2, 2016 | by Lynn Powell

The number of prisoners who died last year while in the custody of the Oklahoma Corrections Department grew by roughly 70 percent compared with figures for 2010, a trend officials say is likely to continue as inmates grow older behind bars and prison ranks continue to swell past record levels.
In 2010, the Corrections Department reported 63 inmates died while in the agency’s custody. Last year, 108 prisoners died while serving time, an increase of 71 percent. During the same time period, the overall prison population grew by only 8 percent, records show.
And while prison life has a reputation of violence, records provided to The Oklahoman through an open records request suggests state inmates are passing away in much the same ways as their counterparts on the outside.
Records show that 397 prisoners died while in the agency’s custody between 2012 and 2015, mostly of heart disease, liver failure, various types of cancer or afflictions of the lungs.

The number of prisoners who died last year while in the custody of the Oklahoma Corrections Department grew by roughly 70 percent compared with figures for 2010, a trend officials say is likely to continue as inmates grow older behind bars and prison ranks continue to swell past record levels.

In 2010, the Corrections Department reported 63 inmates died while in the agency's custody. Last year, 108 prisoners died while serving time, an increase of 71 percent. During the same time period, the overall prison population grew by only 8 percent, records show.

And while prison life has a reputation of violence, records provided to The Oklahoman through an open records request suggests state inmates are passing away in much the same ways as their counterparts on the outside.

Records show that 397 prisoners died while in the agency's custody between 2012 and 2015, mostly of heart disease, liver failure, various types of cancer or afflictions of the lungs.

Cancer No. 1 killer

Cancer is the No. 1 killer of inmates, with 95 deaths attributable to the disease during the four-year period. Heart disease was a distance second, with 70 deaths.

Violent or unnatural deaths, including suicides, executions, accidents and homicides, represent a smaller fraction of prisoner fatalities. In fact, during the four-year span, only 78 inmate deaths, or 19.6 percent, were confirmed as unnatural.

Corrections officials don't put too much stock into the increase in inmate deaths and claim that more inmates are going to die behind bars as the overall prison population continues to grow beyond capacity.

“The thing you have to understand is that most of the population we get in here has not lived a very healthy lifestyle,” agency spokeswoman Terri Watkins said.

“They aren't having … kale salads to eat. Many of them have long histories of poverty, of drug addiction, of alcohol abuse … these are not people who have taken good care of their health. So, our numbers are probably going to be higher than the general population, percentage-wise.”

Aging inmates

One of the likely causes for the sharp rise in inmate deaths is the “aging” prisoner.

Once a rare sight in Oklahoma prisons, inmates age 50 or older now represent a significant percentage of all of the men and women behind bars.

In 1980, there were only 85 state prisoners — or just 5 percent of the overall prison population — who were older than 50. Thirty-five years later, in 2015, that figure has swollen to roughly 5,500, records show.

Following decades of tough-on-crime justice policies and what many critics describe as harsh sentencing practices by Oklahoma judges, these “older” prisoners now make up nearly 18.9 percent of the state's total inmate population.

Mirroring that population growth trend, prison records show inmates age 50 or older represented 66.8 percent of the in-custody deaths reported at state prisons between 2012 and 2015.

Watkins said the impact of the aging prison population is most evident when medical expenses are examined.

In 2015, the state Corrections Department spent a record $84.7 million on medical costs. A year earlier, the agency reported that roughly 10 percent of the state Corrections Department workforce was described as “medical staff.”

Watkins said inmates age 50 or older are increasingly being held at Joseph Harp Correctional Center and the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, because both facilities are close to key medical complexes with contracts with the prison system.

Medical expenses costly

“Medical expenses are inherently costly,” Watkins said. “But older inmates do tend to have higher health care costs … and there are more and more of them incarcerated right now, so you can see where this is going.”

In the meantime, Watkins said the agency deals with the issues associated with the aging prison population “every day.”

“Accommodations are made for offenders,” she said. “The case managers, the (correctional officers), the people that work with them on a daily basis, the physicians, the nurses, the nurses' assistants, all of them will work with the offender to accommodate whatever kinds of physical needs they might have.

“If they can't get into a second-level bunk, they'll work with them to get into a first-level bunk. If they can't get around very well, to the different areas of the prison, they'll work with them on where they need to be. We deal with that every day.”

by Andrew Knittle Published: April 24, 2016 

 

here is link