Voices from the Inside Out: Death by incarceration

September 5, 2017

From the September-October 2017 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

Death by incarceration (DBI), though not one of the other forms of the death penalty that prisons use to dispense the ultimate punishment, occurs at an alarming rate. It is not widely recorded because it is not a sanctioned punishment (short of a person getting life without parole), that is defined by state statutes, policies or procedures.

One of many demonstrations against death by incarceration.  Photo: LET’S GET FREE Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee

One of many demonstrations against death by incarceration.
Photo: LET’S GET FREE Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee

DBI has various methods. One of the growing forms—especially amongst women prisoners—is suicide. Its escalation in recent years correlates to increased periods of incarceration for relatively minor crimes.

In suicide cases DBI can be defined by several categories: those who are mentally ill and do not receive the care they need to be able to function in the community, let alone prison; those whose stressors are so overwhelming that they simply choose to give up; those whose time structure is so debilitating that death seems a relief from a seeming lifetime spent inside an eight by ten foot cell.

These categories are made by those who live in this environment, year after year, often for decades. The most common form of DBI is the state-sanctioned penalties that are supported by the prison industrial complex: life without parole and indeterminate sentencing.


A common theme to corrections is that over 90% of people currently confined will eventually return to the community, yet there is always a question of when a person’s incarceration for a crime—any crime—is enough and when continued incarceration simply undermines rehabilitation. When a society locks up a person for an extended period it is ludicrous to think that they will return to the community unscathed. People can rehabilitate themselves, but extended incarceration does not help people learn social skills, especially if rehabilitative efforts are based on current correctional thought. The stripping of a prisoner’s individuality is a form of cultural death which may not appear in law books or social sciences texts, but is one of the uncited causes of recidivism.

Incarceration is most enervating when a person is kept in prison well beyond a reasonable time of confinement that fulfills the community’s need for retribution.

This country has over two million people currently in prison with several million more under some sort of judicial sanction, the majority of whom are people of color, though all are subjected to this form of cultural and social death. Prisons are the only universally integrated U.S. social construct.


Prisoners’ lives are defined by outside political priorities rather than desires to create positive outcomes which would facilitate reintegration into society.

On average it costs $30,000 a year to incarcerate a person. In a supermax, that cost is about $50,000 a year. With aging prison populations due to DBI policies, that cost can soar to $100,000 a year or more to keep a prisoner confined who can barely feed themselves or walk.

In states like Louisiana, geriatric wards have been created in prisons to ensure that the community’s lust for revenge is properly satisfied, but also that the prisoners can die with some level of dignity.

As a country, we need to decide when a specific function of our society becomes contrary to our core principles, ideas and values, and then we must work to create viable, lasting changes; not simply apply cosmetic bandages to weeping sores.

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