How Many People Die in Prison in Utah?

Many people are sentenced to prison terms that last longer than a year.  Some of these prisoners are entitled to parole hearings that may shorten how long they actually stay in prison, but some are not.

Sometimes people are sentenced to life in prison, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or very long prison sentences (such as fifty or 100 years).  With these long sentences, it is likely, and almost expected, that a prisoner will serve the rest of his or her natural life in prison.  Other sentences are for shorter periods, such as two or five years.  These are not expected to be life sentences, but an unfortunate number of prisoners still die in prison every year, transforming those sentences into death sentences. Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer Darwin Overson explains national statistics as they relate to inmate deaths.

Goals of Sentencing

In Utah’s 2016 Sentencing Guidelines, the stated goals of sentencing in Utah are to reduce the risk of future offending.  This means that prison should be used as a tool to stop convicted criminals from committing future crimes.  Goals also include “ensuring public safety” and “imposing a punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense and the culpability of the offender.”  This means that a prison sentence should only be as harsh as the crime committed, should reflect previous criminal activity of the prisoner, and should only be enough to protect the public.

When the state of Utah hands down punishments, it tries to make them fair in relation to the crime.  That means that only the worst crimes are given the worst punishments of life in prison or the death penalty.  Other crimes are not supposed to have a life sentence, but rather a chance to learn from one’s mistakes and then return to the public as a reformed citizen.  When prisoners are denied this chance to return to society because of premature, avoidable death, this system becomes unjust.

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Statistics on Prisoner Deaths

The United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) gets reports from state and federal prisons, and uses them to assemble statistics on annual prisoner deaths.  The most recent reports available as of writing this article are from 2001 through 2014; 2015 data is not yet available.  For those unfamiliar, rates in statistics are usually given as the number of people per 100,000 people.

Looking at the total mortality rates in prison from 2001-2014, there were 256 deaths per 100,000 inmates.  Of these, 89% were from illness: 27% from cancer, 26% from heart disease, 10% from liver disease, and the rest from various sources.  This makes sense, since these numbers include older inmates whose sentences include the expectation that they will likely die in prison.  This number is actually lower than the national mortality rate, as reported by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (link to:, of 728.25.  This means that only about 35% as many people die in prison as they do in the United States as a whole.

State prisoners died at a rate of about 32 more deaths per 100,000 prisoners than federal prisoners from 2001 to 2014.  This does not necessarily show that state prisoners are treated worse than federal prisoners – there are other factors that may explain this difference, such as the ages, health, or lifestyle of federal offenders before prison.

The suicide rate of prisoners is actually 16 per 100,000 and accounts for 6% of all inmate deaths.  This number is a bit higher in state prisons, as compared to federal prisons.  The American Society for the Prevention of Suicide’s statistics, give a national suicide rate of 13.26 for 2015 and 22.42 in Utah for 2015.  Comparing these statistics shows that prisoners commit suicide at only a slightly higher rate than the average American, and at a generally lower rate than the average Utahan.  Another comparison worth noting is that the BJS statistics for people in jail, who may be awaiting trial, show a disturbing rate of 42 suicides per 100,000 inmates – over 2.5 times the rate of prison inmates.  This may be so drastically different because, while prisoners have already survived jail and the shock of facing criminal charges, those in jail are scared or ashamed of the charges they are facing.

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A Salt Lake City Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help if You are Going to Prison

If you have been sentenced to a term in prison, you should try and remember that most prison sentences are not death sentences.  On the other side of prison, you should still have the opportunity to move on with your life.  Unless your sentence is to life in prison or a very long sentence, there is a chance to recover.

On the other hand, spending a long time in prison and risking dying while incarcerated is something no one wants to do.  It is best to seek out a lawyer who can help you get your sentence reduced.  Whether you have just been arrested, are awaiting trial, or are already in prison, there may be options for your prison sentence to be reduced.  You may even have an opportunity to plea to a lesser offense or enter into a plea in abeyance, either of which may help you entirely avoid prison.

You should also talk to an attorney if you or a loved one is in prison and being mistreated, denied medical care, or denied food and water.  If a loved one of yours has died while in prison or police custody, there may be actions you can take.

If you’re in the Salt Lake City area and looking for a strong and experienced criminal defense attorney, look to Darwin Overson.  Darwin has been practicing criminal defense law in Utah for years and knows how to handle sentencing and sentencing reduction.  He will fight to get your charges dismissed or help you get alternative sentences so you can avoid jail.  For a consultation, call (801) 758-2287.