Only 1 out of 2,000 women in Norway has served time in prison. Yet, 13 per cent of all women who died from HIV between 2000 and 2019 had been in prison.

Women who have been in prison face a much higher risk of early death

Many of the deaths could have been avoided, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Norwegian Centre for Addiction Research (SERAF) have studied statistics for all women who were incarcerated in a Norwegian prison between 2000 and 2019.

They found that, on average, nearly 11 years after the women were released from prison, 9 per cent of them had died.

Half of the women who died were younger than 50 years, and 8 out of 10 deaths could have been avoided through either treatment or prevention.

The study was recently published in the International Journal of Epidemology.

Many risk factors

Even though few women are incarcerated, the women who have been in prison represent a fairly large proportion of the women in Norway who die prematurely from certain causes.

Only 1 out of 2,000 women in Norway has served time in prison.

Yet, 13 per cent of all the women who died of HIV between 2000 and 2019 had been in prison. For drug-induced deaths, the proportion was 11 per cent, and for deaths related to alcohol use, the proportion was 5 per cent.

Vegard Gjerden Svendsen is the main researcher behind the new study, and he is part of the PriSUD project, which the study is a part of.

“Drugs are a major problem. Many also have a number of other lifestyle and socioeconomic challenges that together contribute to them having a high risk of dying early,” he says.

During the period of the study, which is part of Svendsen's doctoral work, the number of years of life lost due to substance abuse problems decreased. At the same time, the number of years of life lost due to other causes increased.

32 per cent of the deaths were related to overdoses, while 32 per cent were related to what WHO has defined as major non-communicable diseases.

The latter group of diseases includes, among others, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes, and COPD. And among women who have been in prison, the risk of dying from these diseases is many times higher compared to the rest of the population.

Men are also vulnerable

Svendsen says that the situation is probably not very different for men.

“There’s no reason to believe that there are significant differences. A corresponding study on men has not yet been conducted, but studies have been done on overdoses and suicides,” he says.

In a 2023 study from SERAF, researchers calculated the mortality rate for those who have been in prison, regardless of gender. Using data from the Norwegian Cause of Death Registry, they found that 8 per cent of those who had served time in prison died over a period of 8 years.

As has previously reported, a high proportion of those who are imprisoned are diagnosed with substance use disorder or mental health problems. The proportion has also increased over time.

Prevention in prison is needed

Svendsen points out that the study does not provide an answer as to whether serving time is a reason for such a high proportion of those who have been incarcerated dying early.

“It’s hard to say. Most die quite a while after their prison stay, and then it’s hard to say that what happened while they were inside was decisive,” he says.

However, a clear conclusion in several reports is that the conditions of imprisonment are too poor in Norwegian prisons.

One of them is the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombud’s inspection report for the women's prison Bredtveit, from March 2023 (link in Norwegian).

“If being incarcerated is a retraumatising experience that causes you to fall even further behind than before you were in prison, it might not help,” Svendsen points out.

He believes that measures should be taken so that prison stays enhance the inmates' prospects for doing well after serving their time, instead of, in the worst case, deteriorating their conditions.

“The Norwegian Correctonal Service is a unique arena for coming into contact with some of the most vulnerable and exposed groups in society,” he says.


Translated by Alette Bjordal Gjellesvik

Read the Norwegian version of this article on


Svendsen et al. Mortality in women with a history of incarceration in Norway: a 20-year national cohort studyInternational Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 53, 2024. DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyae032

Tverborgvik et al. The association between drug use and mortality in a norwegian prison cohort: a prospective cohort studyHealth & Justice, vol. 11, 2023. DOI: 10.1186/s40352-023-00223-y

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