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Making prisoner deaths visible: Towards a new epistemological approach

Tomczak, Philippa; Mulgrew, Róisín

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Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Róisín Mulgrew


In custodial contexts, the duty of states to protect the most fundamental right-to life-is heightened. Nevertheless, prisoner deaths are a universal and frequent concern. The mortality rate among the 11.5 million prisoners globally is up to 50% higher than amongst non-imprisoned persons , forming a human rights and health equity concern. It is therefore peculiar that prisoner deaths have attracted only piecemeal scholarly attention. In this article, we problematize epistem-ologies of prisoner death, highlighting obfuscations and agglomerations in existing datasets based on poor definitions, reductive statistics and constrained medico-legal categorizations. We provide a springboard towards a new epistemological approach that makes the scale and breadth of prisoner deaths and deceased prisoner characteristics more visible to facilitate prevention. We advance three tenets: count prisoners who die rather than deaths in prison, disaggregate prisoner death data through rights-informed dimensions and adopt explicitly defined, mutually exclusive categorizations.


Tomczak, P., & Mulgrew, R. (2023). Making prisoner deaths visible: Towards a new epistemological approach. Incarceration, 4,

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 3, 2023
Online Publication Date Mar 6, 2023
Publication Date 2023-01
Deposit Date Mar 7, 2023
Publicly Available Date Mar 8, 2023
Journal Incarceration
Print ISSN 2632-6663
Electronic ISSN 2632-6663
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 4
Keywords Detention; suicide; manner of death; cause of death; mortality; homicide; data
Public URL
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