BACKGROUND: The U.S. population of former prison inmates is large and growing. The period immediately after release may be challenging for former inmates and may involve substantial health risks. We studied the risk of death among former inmates soon after their release from Washington State prisons. METHODS: We conducted a retrospective cohort study of all inmates released from the Washington State Department of Corrections from July 1999 through December 2003. Prison records were linked to the National Death Index. Data for comparison with Washington State residents were obtained from the Wide-ranging OnLine Data for Epidemiologic Research system of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality rates among former inmates were compared with those among other state residents with the use of indirect standardization and adjustment for age, sex, and race. RESULTS: Of 30,237 released inmates, 443 died during a mean follow-up period of 1.9 years. The overall mortality rate was 777 deaths per 100,000 person-years. The adjusted risk of death among former inmates was 3.5 times that among other state residents (95% confidence interval [CI], 3.2 to 3.8). During the first 2 weeks after release, the risk of death among former inmates was 12.7 (95% CI, 9.2 to 17.4) times that among other state residents, with a markedly elevated relative risk of death from drug overdose (129; 95% CI, 89 to 186). The leading causes of death among former inmates were drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide. CONCLUSIONS: Former prison inmates were at high risk for death after release from prison, particularly during the first 2 weeks. Interventions are necessary to reduce the risk of death after release from prison.
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