Last week, a Florida jury recommended that Nikolas Cruz receive life in prison without the possibility of parole. Cruz had pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder: 14 children and three adults in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
The jury had been deciding whether to sentence Cruz to the death penalty or to life in prison. Florida law requires that a jury unanimously sentence the death penalty. Nine of 12 jurors voted for the death penalty while three did not. According to NPR, a judge cannot overturn Cruz’s sentence.
During Cruz’s trial, his defense attorney Melissa McNeill argued that Cruz could face violence in prison. According to CNN, McNeill argued against the death penalty and said in the closing arguments, that Cruz would die in prison of either natural causes or “whatever else could possibly happen to him while he’s in prison.” Cruz would likely go to a prison with other incarcerated persons who committed high profile crimes.
McNeill’s hint towards prison violence points to a reality in U.S. prisons.
How common is prison violence in the U.S.?
Jens Modvig analyzed violence in prison in the World Health Organization’s publication “Prisons and Health” and found that “About 25% of prisoners are victimized by violence each year while 4%–5% experience sexual violence and 1%–2% are raped.”
Statistics on prison violence do not always portray the whole picture, however, because violence is often underreported due to fear of reprisal.
Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative showed in a graph how homicide, suicide and intoxication are increasing in state prisons. State prisons are generally intended for longer-term holding periods, while jails are intended for shorter holding periods.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the most violent prison system in the world is in the U.S.: the Alabama prison system, which has a high murder rate. Florida also has a high rate of violence within its prison system.