Looking to Live in a Community with Low Murder Rates? Try Committing a Crime

Crime rates have a large influence on the choices people make about where to live. The amazing declines in crime over the last fifteen years have been especially strong in big cities, a factor that helped fuel an urban renaissance. Ironically, however, some of the lowest murder rates are found in places where one might suspect just the opposite to be true: U.S. prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released data on the causes of death among inmates in state prisons. In 2005, 56 prisoners were murdered. There are roughly 2 million inmates held in state prisons, meaning that the homicide rate per 100,000 prisoners last year was only 2.8. That number is less than half the rate of New York City (6.6 per 100,000) and an order of magnitude lower than Baltimore (42 per 100,000). Indeed, of the 66 largest cities in the United States, only El Paso, Tex. and Honolulu, Hawaii have lower homicide rates than the state prisons.

Interestingly, suicide rates in prison are about average for the U.S. There were 215 suicides in state prisons in 2005, for a rate of roughly 10 per 100,000. The overall suicide rate for all Americans is 10.6 per 100,000.

These low homicide and suicide rates are both testimony to the fact that prisons are incredibly highly controlled environments. Whenever I have visited prisons, I have been amazed at how safe I felt. In contrast, when doing ride-alongs in police cars, I’ve always had the feeling that something crazy could happen at any moment.

So if you feel there is too much crime in your own neighborhood, there is a simple solution to your problem: just commit a crime yourself. Your new home in prison will likely be a much safer place to live.

Robert S. Porter

But what is the rate of assult and rape...




*Echoes Robert S. Porter's concerns*

In addition- Theft? Intimidation? Guard brutality?

While Levitt appears to be facetious in his analysis, I'd suggest that personal satisfaction indexes are a better indication of neighborhood quality than the criteria Levitt proposes.

Regarding suicide, opportunity is very important to suicide studies. If every inmate were given access to a bottle of Tylenol, I'd suggest the suicide rate would probably increase... and the favored method would be death by Tylenol.


but you wouldn't call that _living life_, would you?


Robert, it's difficult to get good numbers on sexual assaults in prisons. Much of the sexual activity is consensual (meaning that any reasonable person would call it consensual if the same words and acts passed between two university students).

However, since sex is banned in prisons, then an inmate who is caught having sex will often report it as rape. Some inmates see rape allegations as a way of insulating themselves from misconduct charges. Some see it as a way to get special attention or to manipulate the system (to get a different cellmate, for example). Others see it as a way of reinforcing their conformation to a heteronormative roles (as in, "I'm not gay; he raped me!")

Certainly some sex in prisons is non-consensual, but I don't think that is actually a common experience outside of the movies.

(Some of it is purely fictitious, too. Inmates are not known to be the single most truthful population, and trumped-up sexual assualt charges are occasionally used as a lever for extortion.)



Ummm ... is murder the only crime one should worry about in prison? How do the physical and sexual assault rates compare? And how about attempted murder -- not just successful murder? Let's not set aside good social science just for a clever headline.


Why is this surprising? Prisons are extremely thoroughly controlled environments, with guards, bars, solitary confinement for high risk inmates, and most weapons are completely contraband and carefully kept out of the hands of inmates. It's easy to keep murder rates low when you're dealing with a population that has very few individual freedoms and nowhere to hide.

David R.

...or you could move to Singapore.

Ed Eovino

The overall murder rate as a percentage may be lower, but I would bet most of the murders that do happen involve stronger inmates attacking the weak. So if your the type of prisoner who would be encouraged by that statistic...you might disproportionately be finding yourself "the" statistic.


Prisons may be highly controlled environments, but the prisoners still manage to possess drugs, weapons, assault each other, etc.

Plus a sizable portion of them are stuck in prison pretty much forever anyway, so they wouldn't have as much to lose if they did murder someone and get caught.

Johnny Sheridan

The main concern here is that we have to assume these "average" statistics translate to something meaningful in practice. Given how diverse the range of "prisons" are, this is unlikely.

There are a huge amounts of Level I or II prisons, where most people are in for a few years at a time, and have absolutely no reason to kill one another, since they generally want to get out ASAP.

What would be more interesting is to see the statistics for Level III/IV prisons, where you're dealing with populations of murderers or rapists who are likely serving life (or close to it) and therefore don't face very significant disincentives for killing.

So to anybody planning on committing a crime to enjoy the low murder rates, make sure you commit the right crime, in the right state.


How do the murder and violent crime rates vary with the type of prison? Do maximum security prisons have higher rates of murder because the people are in for harder crimes or do the tighter controls balance this out?


This fits with the finding of a few years back (can't cite the specifics) that death row prisoners had longer life expectancies than the general prison population - i.e., a death sentence was counterproductive.


Could it be that the aggregate numbers hide the fact that most of the current prison population have been convicted of drug crimes? If the prison population is broken down by type of crime and the same thing is done with in-prison assaults and suicides it might shed more light on in-prison crime rate. I think another factor would be the density of inmate population. If they are in facilities that are so crowded, the pressures will be greater to defend personal space.

If prison rape statistics are biased by lying inmates, why is the reported rate higher in the US than UK or Australia? Do you really think US convicts are bigger liars?


I'm currently reading "Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation" by Joseph Hallinan. The most recent data he provides are from 1996, but he states that according to the BJS, "...many states- and the federal government- don't report inmate homicides as a separate offense. Instead, they lump all inmate deaths under one category: 'unspecified cause'. In 1996, the deaths of 395 inmates were attributed to 'unspecified cause'." This is compared to the 65 inmates that were reported to have been killed behind bars. I think he's correct to assume that there are many more homicides than what's officially reported annually, in which case I don't think it's so difficult to concede that the murder rate in prisons is able to rival cities like NY ..


Did you visit a Level 1? Because I'll bet that's why you felt safe. It's also because you're male. They don't cat-call men.

I taught a music class in a Level 3 one time and almost had a panic attack in the middle of it I was so frightened by the aggressive behavior of the inmates. I didn't feel safe for a second.


*Gives props to Silvanus' Adventure ref*


Reminds me of an old good book "How To Lie With Statistics". I wonder if Mr. Levitt though of Honolulu's ACTUAL population. That would include illegals and ...tourists. Are there any all year round?

Beside, I got lost one day traveling cornfields area of upstate New York and wound up on a strange road with number of abandoned houses/apartment buildings 100+ years old. I quickly recognized it to be dwellings for guards in an old prison town, and at the end there it was: state prison in Comstock, NY. Named after its inventor:

Old (abandoned) warden's mansion was on the hill overooking the new prison. I commented to my mate, that in such a setting quality of lives of the guards outside do not differ from lives of the inmates on the inside, and alcoholism among lone wardens must rival that of lone Catholic bishops.

Still Skeptical

The issue of assaults and attempted murders is particularly important in parsing out a causal story behind these lower homicide rates. We know that the prison population is significantly more inclined to criminal behavior than the general population, but that their access to weapons is significantly less than it would be outside the prison walls.

But can such reduction in freedom alone explain the murder rate? How about the fact that every prison (presumably) has some sort of infirmary, and that this may decrease the time from attack/attempted murder to treatment by medical professionals? A simple test of this alternative hypothesis could be conducted by comparing not just the murder rates of prison and the national population, but also the rates of assault and the response times by medical professionals to such assaults.