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Published: Monday, 8/29/2005

Progress behind bars

A long jail term and a long life are not necessarily compatible concepts. But death rates in the nation's prisons and jails are declining, even as the number of inmates behind bars continues to grow. The credit for fewer murders, suicides, and deaths from AIDS is due to the work of advocacy groups and heightened awareness by law enforcement.

With America's prison population at 2.1 million and rising, nearly 1 percent of the nation's entire population is behind bars. Advocacy groups finally have the attention, and have won the respect, of sheriffs and wardens, convincing them to pay greater heed to inmate death rates.

Their work has paid off because now medical care, mental health staffs, and screening and training of employees in prisons and jails have improved. Also, the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project and the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives have also persuaded penal system officials to pay closer attention to violent offenders.

The advocates' doggedly aggressive action in filing lawsuits has brought noticeably positive results. The homicide rate in America's state prisons dropped by more than 90 percent between 1980 and 2002. It was 54 for every 100,000 inmates in 1980, and in 2002, it was just four for every 100,000, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A similar sharp drop - 60 percent - in the suicide rate in jails was due largely to the growth in sheriffs' awareness and sensitivity about the issue. In 1983 there were 129 suicides for every 100,000 inmates; in 2002, just 47.

AIDS-related deaths in jails and prisons also went down. In jails, that death rate dropped from 20 for every 100,000 in 1988 to eight in 2002. In state prisons, it fell from 100 in 1995 per 100,000 to 15 in 2000.

Some will callously ask, "so what?" After all, the inmates are behind bars for crimes they committed against society.

But the public should care. Lower death rates mean there is less gang violence and fewer riots, and diminished numbers of HIV-infected inmates. Since most prisoners eventually return to society, those can only be considered good things.

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