New York State was once an international outlier in its use of capital punishment. Prior to 1972, when the US Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty, New York ranked second in most executions of any state in the country, executing 1130 people over a 364 year period. Yet, abolishing the death penalty did not slow death behind bars. Since 1976–when the state began compiling data on deaths in custody–7,504 people died while in the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). This is seven times the number of deaths of those who were executed by the state. Those who have died in custody over the last 45 years have largely been Black people, and particularly in the last decade, older people and people serving sentences of 15 years or more. Increasingly, advocates and lawmakers have come to call this devastating reality “death by incarceration”, or “death by incarceration sentences” that ensure that thousands will die in prison and/or face a Parole Board that denies release to the majority of people who appear before it, and disproportionately denies release to Black New Yorkers.
Without policy intervention, thousands of currently incarcerated New Yorkers are at risk of dying behind bars in the years and decades to come.
- More people have died in NY State custody in the last decade than the total of number of people executed in the 364 years New York State had the death penalty. 1,278 people died in NY State custody in the last decade compared to 1,130 who were executed in NY State between 1608 and 1972.
- Today, more than 1 in 2 people who die in NY State custody are older adults, compared to roughly 1 in 10 at the beginning of the era of mass incarceration.
- Every three days someone dies inside a NYS prison, compared to every 12 days in 1976.
- In 2018, Black people accounted for 45% of all deaths in DOCCS custody, despite only making up 14% of all deaths of New York State residents.
- People who have already served 15 years in custody account for 9 times more of the total deaths behind bars today than they did in the 1980s, the first full decade of available data.
- 40% of all deaths behind bars since 1976 of people 55 and older happened in the last ten years.
- In the most recent decade, roughly 1 in 3 people who died behind bars had served at least 15 years, compared to 1 in 29 in the 1980s.
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