Most of the 205 inmates who died over the past three years while in Oklahoma Corrections Department custody did so of natural causes, a trend that likely will continue as the prison system's population grows older.
The manner of death in 155 of those cases has been deemed “natural” by the state medicalexaminer.
Natural deaths represent 75.6 percent of such cases, prison records show.
And despite being filled with thousands of violent criminals, homicides account for only 7.3 percent of deaths over the three-year span.
Only 15 of the inmates' deaths were described as “homicides,” a figure that includes prisoners executed by the state.
There were 14 inmate suicides reported by the Corrections Department since 2010, making it the third-most common way prisoners die while in state custody.
Thirteen of the deaths on the list provided to The Oklahoman by the Corrections Department were described as “pending,” most of them occurring within the last year or so.
In fact, Corrections Department records show that 11 of the 53 documented inmate deaths this year are listed as “pending.”
Since the start of 2010, prison system documents show that seven inmates' deaths were described as accidental, while just one inmate died under mysterious circumstances.
The manner of the death for Jimmy Gilbert, who died Aug. 9, 2011, at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center, is listed as “unknown.”
Gilbert was 48, according to a death notice in The Oklahoman three days after he died.
In 2010, only 63 inmates died in the Corrections Department's custody.
The next year, in 2011, another 89 would die while behind bars, records show.
So far this year, there have been 53 inmate deaths.
The last to die was Michael Hooper, who was executed Aug. 14 for murdering a mother and her two children in 1993.
Prison records show that in-custody deaths could rise in the future as more and more inmates grow into their advanced years while behind bars.
Jerry Massie, a Corrections Department spokesman, said prison system administrators have been aware of the issue for some time.
During the past three decades, the number of inmates 50 or older has grown exponentially.
In 1980, there were only 85 prisoners who were older than 50. Those inmates represented just 4.9 percent of the prison population.
Fourteen years later, there were 879 inmates 50 or older, representing 6.4 percent of the inmate population.
By 2010, the same segment of the prison population had grown to 3,952 — representing 14.5 percent of the inmate population.
Last year, the number of inmates 50 or older fell to 3,824, but the age group's share of the overall prison population grew to 15 percent.
“The population has been growing, and we anticipate it will continue to grow due to the impact of 85 percent crimes and life without parole,” Massie said.
The Corrections Department's latest annual report sheds light on the growth of the population and highlights some of the challenges associated with the trend.
According to the report, prisoners 50 or older will number 5,254 by the next fiscal year, a 48 percent increase.
During that same time, the overall prison population is expected to grown by only 10 percent.
An older prison population will lead to higher medical expenses, the report shows.
“This circumstance is often made worse by offender's tendency for unhealthy lifestyles, coupled with a history of substance abuse or other chronic medical conditions,” the report states.
Indeed, the Corrections Department's medical expenses have grown right along with the segment of inmates who are 50 or older.
In 2002, the department spent $37.9 million for inmate health care.
Less than 10 years later, in 2011, that expenditure had grown to $62.7 million — an increase of 65 percent.