Which Is Safer: City Streets or Prison?


Inmates walk around an exercise yard at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011. The Supreme Court has ordered California to release more than 30,000 inmates over the next two years or take other steps to ease overcrowding in its prisons to prevent "needless suffering and death."
Inmates walk around an exercise yard at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, Calif., in 2011.

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Paul Mannina, the Labor Department lawyer charged with assaulting a colleague using handcuffs and a stun gun, was found dead in his Washington, D.C., jail cell with his throat slashed on Tuesday. It’s not yet clear whether his death was a murder or suicide, but jail and prison murders are regularly in the news. A Missouri man was charged on Tuesday with strangling his cellmate, and a California jury is now considering the death penalty for a 2005 prison murder. Are you more likely to be murdered in jail or on the Washington city streets?

On the streets. The homicide rate in local jails nationwide hovered around 3 inmates per 100,000 between 2000 and 2010, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (There are too few jail inmates in the district to generate a useful Washington-specific figure.) The overall murder rate in Washington in 2011 was 17.5 per 100,000, which means free people in the nation’s capital are more than five times more likely to be murdered than inmates. Before you flee the district, though, keep in mind that local jails boast a lower murder rate than most places. Nationwide, there were 4.7 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, making local jails and state prisons safer than the average American town.

Murder has been declining in correctional facilities for decades—just like the murder rate in the free population, but more dramatically. In 1980, the homicide rate in state prisons was 54 inmates per 100,000. The homicide rate for the general population in 1980 was 10.2 per 100,000.

Washington, although not quite as safe as a correctional facility, is no longer among the nation’s deadliest cities. The American cities with the highest murder rates today are Flint, Mich. (64.9 per 100,000 in 2012), Detroit (54.6 per 100,000), and New Orleans (53.5 per 100,000).

The relative safety of a correctional facility changes depending on your race and gender. White males are slightly safer on the streets (4.3 murders per 100,000) than in state prisons (5 murders per 100,000). African-American men, in contrast, are safer in prison. The black murder rate in prison, at 3 deaths per 100,000 prisoners, is slightly lower than the white prisoner murder rate. African-Americans outside of prison, however, suffer a murder rate of 32.1 per 100,000. Women are also safer in prison than on the streets. Between 2001 and 2010, only four women were murdered in prison, for a rate less than 0.5 per 100,000. Outside of prison, 2 women for every 100,000 are murdered each year.

Mannina allegedly suffered mental health issues, increasing the likelihood that his death was a suicide. The statistics support that conclusion. Suicide accounts for nearly 1 in 3 deaths in local jails, while just 2 percent of jail deaths are homicides.

Suicide rates are probably highest in local jails because many inmates were recently arrested and are at the peak of their anxiety, and they may not have received psychological counseling. In 2010, 42 jail inmates per 100,000 killed themselves—far more than the nationwide suicide rate of 12.4 per 100,000. Once an inmate is convicted and transferred from a local jail to long-term holding in a state prison, though, the suicide rate drops to 16 per 100,000. Prisoners are more likely to commit suicide than free people nationwide, but the difference is less than one might expect. County-by-county data suggest that much of the western United States, for example, has suicide rates that equal or surpass that of the average state prison.

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