When I first saw the headlines about Black men living longer lives in prison than they are able to do on the outside, my breath caught in my throat. I wondered, how could prison— with all of its gangs, violent inmates, exposure to diseases, and lack of services—possibly keep someone alive longer than they’d be able to do on the outside. However, a new study published in the Annals of Epidemiology found that African-American men have a higher rate of death outside of prison than they do while they serve time.

The study followed 100,000 men between the ages of 20 to 79 who were held in North Carolina prisons between 1995 and 2005. According to the study’s findings, less than one percent of the men died while in prison (this number was fairly split between Black and White inmates). However, outside of prison African-American men had a much higher rate of death than their white counterparts.

The reasons, however, are not what you may think.

While incarcerated, Black men seemed to be protected against alcohol-and drug-related deaths, suicide, murder, as well as various chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.  But the greatest protector against death for Black male inmates? Access to health care.

“Ironically, prisons are often the only provider of medical care accessible by these underserved and vulnerable Americans,” said Hung-En Sung of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“Typically, prison-based care is more comprehensive than what inmates have received prior to their admission,” Sung, who wasn’t involved in the new study, told Reuters

While some point to this study’s findings as revolutionary in terms of providing health care to underserved communities, the over-incarceration of African-American men has devastated our communities.

The study’s author, Dr. David Rosen, explains:

“For some populations, being in prison likely provides benefits in regards to access to healthcare and life expectancy.”

However, Dr. Rosen cautions, “It’s important to remember that there are many possible negative consequences of imprisonment — for example, broken relationships, loss of employment opportunities, and greater entrenchment in criminal activity — that are not reflected in our study findings but nevertheless have an important influence on prisoners’ lives and their overall health.”

It’s a shame that there are such health care disparities in this country that people are safer and better taken care of in prison than in their own communities. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Perhaps this study will open a broader conversation about the need for high-quality health care in underserved communities. Because if you can keep men alive in prison, you can sure keep them alive on the street.



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