The gender of death: How (many) women die in jails

Yesterday, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, or BJS, released a report, Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2013 – Statistical Tables. Suicide is the leading cause of death in U.S. jails. Also yesterday, the Spokane County Jail, in Washington State, requested that the U.S. Department of Justice investigate its recent rash of prisoner suicides. Today, reluctantly and under pressure from the Federal government, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department agreed to reforms in the L.A. County Jail that would finally begin to address “chronically poor treatment for mentally ill inmates and … years of abusive behavior by jailers.” Across much of the country, jurisdictions are finally beginning to focus on mental illness in jails.

From how one dies to how many ones die, jail deaths are gendered: “In 2013, a total of 967 jail inmates died while in the custody of local jails. The number of deaths increased from 958 deaths in 2012 to 967 in 2013, while the jail population decreased 4%. As a result, the overall mortality rate in local jails increased from 128 per 100,000 jail inmates in 2012 to 135 per 100,000 in 2013.”

Last year, a BJS report noted, “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails; in 2013, 124. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 110. More women are dying in jail, and women in jail are making up, year by year, a greater percentage of jail deaths, from 10.1% in 2000 to 12.8% in 2013.

From 2000 to 2013, 1630 women died in local jails. Of that number, 347 committed suicide.

On any average day in 2013, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. Last year, the “good news” was that the suicide rate among women in jail had gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 26 out of 100,000. In 2013, that rate rose to 30.

In a separate report, the BJS notes, “The female inmate population increased 18.1% between midyear 2010 and 2014, while the male population declined 3.2% … Males have made up at least 85% of the jail population since 2000. The female inmate population increased 18.1% (up 16,700 inmates) between midyear 2010 and 2014, while the male population declined 3.2% (down 20,900 inmates). The female jail population grew by an average of about 1.6% every year between 2005 and 2014. In comparison, the male jail population declined by 0.3% every year since 2005.” In 2000, 70, 987 women and girls were in jail; in 2014, 109,100. In 2000, women and girls made up 11.4% of the jail population; in 2014, 14.7%.

None of this is new. Girls end up in jail for status offenses; boys don’t. Women end up in jail, and dead, because they live with mental illnesses, and, when they need help, the police arrive. That’s the cruel and usual punishment of women in jails. How many more federal reports, scholarly studies, grieving families and dead women’s bodies are needed for the nation to act?


(Graph credit: Bureau of Justice Statistics /

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.