Do black men get better health care behind bars?

OPINION - A research study published by Vanderbilt University sociologist Evelyn Patterson in 2010 shows state prisons are having a positive effect on the mortality rates of black men...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

More than 850,000 black men and women are currently incarcerated in federal or state prisons, or in local jails throughout the U.S. The conditions of confinement have caused deep wounds for African-Americans, compromising the healthy development of communities and causing collateral damages such as severed family relationships, decreased parental responsibility over children, loss of employability and wages, housing and employment discrimination, and disenfranchisement, among others.

Still, despite the numerous negative effects that have been associated with incarceration, could prison also be associated with a positive life outcome for black men?

A research study published by Vanderbilt University sociologist Evelyn Patterson in 2010 shows state prisons are having a positive effect on the mortality rates of black men. Her study estimates the rates of working-age prisoners and non-prisoners by gender and race, and finds that while prison has a “detrimental health impact on most groups,” incarcerated black males at every age experience death rates that are lower than for black males outside of prison.

Between 1996 and 1998, black men not in prison lost almost twice as many years of life between the ages of 18 and 65 as incarcerated black men. In contrast, there was only a slight difference in the mortality rates of incarcerated white men when compared to their non-incarcerated white counterparts.

The study finds that while female prisoners lost 76 percent more years of life than women in the general population, the same is not true for black men, even when researchers control for deaths related to handguns and car accidents, factors that uniquely contribute to the deaths of non-incarcerated populations.

While the disparity can be partially explained by the fact that in prison, black men have access to immediate health care and nutrition if they are in need of medical care, the mortality rates for black men in the general society remain alarming.

“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,” said Dr. Barry Krisberg, Director of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley Law School. “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.”

The illusion that prison can fix our health policy crisis is spreading. Last week, James Verone (who happens to be white) robbed a bank in North Carolina of one dollar just so that he could have access to health care. Of course, he probably should have thought that through, as the offense was too minor to likely result in a prison sentence. Still, he made his point. Nationwide, unequal access to health care, poor education about the benefits of preventative care, and lingering distrust about the medical profession combine to leave black men’s health in a state of crisis.

That anyone in a nation this well resourced would have to be criminalized into accessing medical treatment and preventative care is disgraceful; but for too many, that is the narrative. In too many communities, young black men and women have to be in contact with the justice system before they have access to a physician who can even moderately respond to their mental and physical health disorders.

In communities across the country, many parents make the painful decision to let their child get arrested so that he or she can finally have access to the types of treatments and interventions that lead to healthy decisions and behaviors.

“The health equity gap for black Americans far exceeds that of any other ethnic group in this country,” NAACP Health Programs Director Shavon Arline told theGrio. “It is up to the people to demand our congressional leaders respond to the needs of African Americans, and not continue to support a broken health system.”

Ultimately, mortality is just one of many points along a health continuum. Incarceration continues to be associated with negative physical health conditions for black men and women, including the contracting of infectious diseases and rape. Incarceration also has lasting mental health effects, particularly if inmates are struggling with a mental illness and history of drug addiction.

Are black men really healthier in prison? When other measures of health beyond mortality are considered, the answer is a definitive “no.”

However, this study is an effective tool for raising the stakes with regard to how health care is administered outside of the construct of the American judicial system.

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.”