ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — State prisons are becoming more deadly for inmates because of physical and mental conditions, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) 2018 national data.

“The new numbers show some of the same trends we’ve seen before — that thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness — but also reveal that an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol intoxication,” according to the BJS and reported by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The latest data showed overall incarceration rates haven’t changed much since 2001, but overall deaths have increased, according to the BJS.

4,135 state prison inmate deaths in 2018 — highest since BJS began collecting mortality data in 2001 — and excluded 25 people executed in state prisons.

BJS sorted the data by natural versus unnatural death; natural deaths are from illness and unnatural deaths are caused by suicide, homicide, accident, and drug or alcohol intoxication. If a case was pending an investigation or missing a (distinct) cause it was filed as “other.”

In 2108, 77% were from natural causes and 17% were from unnatural causes; in 2001 less than 9% were listed as unnatural cause, according to BJS.

Illness, considered a natural death, is the most common cause of death in state prisons, but incarceration can age a person by 10 to 15 years to a person’s physiology.

In 2018, there were 340 suicides in state prisons, in 2001 there were 51 reported suicides. “Compared to the 1% net growth of state prison populations since 2001, suicides have increased by a shocking 85 percent,” according to BJS.

There were 120 homicides in 2018. By absolute numbers, the homicide rate was highest for inmates 55 years and older. “They were twice as likely to die by homicide as anyone aged 25 to 44,” according to BJS. The report does not keep data on those who caused an inmate’s death.

The report puts deaths from drug overdoses and alcohol intoxications into the same category. In 2018, 249 inmates died from substances.

Inmate letter 2/2021 sent to KNWA/FOX24. An inmate described a prison unit’s conditions as a “hell hole.” He said there have been two inmate suicides in the last few months.


Inmate deaths at the ADC have steadily increased from 2015 through 2020, according to Communications Director Cindy Murphy.

There have been 486 inmate deaths, including 41 inmate suicides, over the last five years.

In 2015, the total inmate population was 18,681 and 16,165 in (November) 2020, according to the ADC website.


  • 2015:   54     (3 of the 54 are suicides)
  • 2016:   72     (7 of the 72 are suicides)
  • 2017:   85     (2 of the 85 are suicides)
  • 2018:   76     (8 of the 76 are suicides)
  • 2019:   77     (11 of the 77 are suicides)
  • 2020:   122   (10 of the 122 are suicides)

Prisons have been, and continue to be, dangerous places, exposing incarcerated people to unbearable physical and mental conditions.

State prison systems must greatly improve medical and mental healthcare, address the relationship between correctional officers and the health of their populations, and work with parole boards to accelerate release processes.

Then, maybe, a state prison sentence would not become a death sentence for so many.

Prison Policy Initiative statement