Oklahoma’s Prison Mortality Rates Among Highest in Nation

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Oklahoma has among the highest prisoner mortality rates and homicide rates in the nation, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics on Thursday.

The data, which examined deaths of both federal and state prisoners between 2001 and 2014, showed that Oklahoma ranked sixth in the nation in prisoner mortality rates, second in accidental death rates and second in the rate of prisoner deaths from homicide.

The rates reflect 1,071 total state and federal prisoner deaths, 25 accidental deaths and 43 homicide deaths during that period.

Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said it is difficult to compare the statistics among states because of the various ways in which offender deaths are classified by jurisdiction. For instance, a death from a drug overdose might be classified as an overdose in one jurisdiction and an accident in another.

Also, unlike in some other jurisdictions, Oklahoma’s numbers include those from private prisons and community corrections centers.

The leading cause of death for Oklahoma prisoners between 2001 and 2014 was heart disease, followed by cancer. The state also ranked fourth in prisoner deaths from respiratory disease and seventh in deaths from liver disease, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Often, individuals entering the prison system are in poorer health compared to the general population, reports the Urban Institute, a social and economic policy research organization. In addition, prisoners have higher hepatitis C infection rates, which can be a major contributor to fatal liver disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states.

Inmate health care is a major cost for the Department of Corrections. From 2006 to 2015, the cost of providing health care to prisoners rose by nearly $20 million, the department’s most recent annual report indicates. In 2015, the annual cost of inmate health care was about $85 million.

One factor driving the cost up is an increasing average age of the prison population. According to the department’s 2015 annual report, there were 85 prisoners over age 50 in 1980. By 2015, that number had grown to 5,455 prisoners.

A larger inmate population and market-driven price increases have helped push the costs higher, the Corrections Department said.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also released mortality rates in jails across the nation. Oklahoma ranked 29th in jail mortality in 2014.