Is Prison Better for Black Men's Health?

Study claims that Black men have better survival rates behind bars than they do in the outside world.

Posted: 07/06/2011 05:53 PM EDT
Filed Under health care

Can being in prison add years to a Black man's life? Yes and no, says a study.

Public health researchers from Vanderbilt University studied death patterns among prisoners and found that Black men in prison die at much lower rates than Black men who are not in prison.

In the American Journal of Epidemiology, the authors wrote:

"Based on the relatively poor health of incarcerated populations and the high mortality rates seen after release, one might predict that inmates would also suffer from high mortality while incarcerated. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, however, showed that while incarcerated, inmates aged 15–64 years experience 19 percent lower mortality than comparably aged controls in the general population; among Blacks, mortality for prisoners is 43 percent lower than age-adjusted mortality for the general Black population."

Forty-three percent is shocking and somewhat ridiculous. What about prison—a place where 850,000 Black men and women million Black men are housed—is "better" for Black men's lives?

Well the no-duh answer is that health care for Black men in this country is so horrible and so scarce that too many Black men go undiagnosed with their ailments and are not on needed treatment. It seems like the only place where many Black men are accessing health care is when they are locked up.

But this isn't the first report to come with similar conclusions. Io9 reported:

A study published last year in the journal Demography backed up this finding. Sociologist Evelyn J. Patterson studied U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics and census data and concluded:

White male prisoners had higher death rates than white males who were not in prison. Black male prisoners, however, consistently exhibited lower death rates than Black male nonprisoners did. Additionally, the findings indicate that while the relative difference in mortality levels of white and Black males was quite high outside of prison, it essentially disappeared in prison. Notably, removing deaths caused by firearms and motor vehicles in the nonprison population accounted for some of the mortality differential between Black prisoners and nonprisoners. The death rates of the other groups analyzed suggest that prison is an unhealthy environment; yet, prison appears to be a healthier place than the typical environment of the nonincarcerated Black male population. These findings suggest that firearms and motor vehicle accidents do not sufficiently explain the higher death rates of Black males, and they indicate that a lack of basic healthcare may be implicated in the death rates of Black males not incarcerated.

But let's also be clear that prisons are not the gold standard for health care either.

Barry Krisberg, MD, Director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley Law School told the Grio, "By no means is it true that health care in prison is even up to minimal standards. Across the country, states are facing lawsuits because of prison-related health care crises. This is really an indictment of the type of care available to African-American males in the community. They're reflecting the condition and quality of health care that is available at the intersection between poverty and race."

What's also important to remember is that the researchers are not saying that prison is the answer for strengthening Black men's health or that prison makes men healthier. There are still a slew of emotional and mental trauma and health issues that prisoners endure that can impact their mortality. The Grio reported:

Scholars and policymakers should not be quick to assume that incarcerating African-American males is actually helping them. According to the study, "prisoners are at risk for more diseases before, during, and after interaction with the criminal justice system...Although they may not die from the disease in prison due to the provision of health care services, they certainly have higher risks of dying once released."

So if anything, this study highlights a serious health gap in this country that needs to be addressed, because prison shouldn't be the place where Black men are introduced to health care.

(Photo: AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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