Black Men Live Longer Behind Bars

A black man has a longer life expectancy in prison than in average society.

According to a recent study published in the Annals of Epidemiology, black men in North Carolina’s prisons have a significantly lower chance of death in prison than out of it. The study, as reported by Reuters, also found that white men "were slightly more likely" to die inside the prison cell than outside.

While these findings are shocking in that they lay bare, in no uncertain terms the disparity in access to health care, safety and well-being among whites and blacks in America, they are unsurprising. Many inner-city black communities lack access to the vocational, financial, educational and cultural capital resources necessary for health and well-being.

Perhaps what is most surprising and disheartening about the findings of this study is its rhetorical significance. What does it say about America that a marginalized demographic group has a better chance at life locked up than free? How does a teacher tell a black student in a Title I school to work hard and stay out of trouble when jail is safer than the streets? And how does a black parent tell her child about slavery using past tense verbs when the vestiges of the system still exist today in very paradoxical ways?

This study’s findings suggest that the structural mechanisms that account for the disparity between blacks and whites in measures of health and wealth are as strong as ever. Although policies like affirmative action and equal lending practices have contributed to surface-level equality, true structural change remains elusive and the trappings of the inner-city oppressive. This reality coupled with our government’s apathy (manifested in the form of budget cuts and congressional inability to pass any meaningful legislation on behalf of the working poor) spells devastation for the black community unless something meaningful is done.

But what can and should be done?

First, we must deal with structures. We must find out what the specific structural mechanisms are that enable the seemingly absurd fact that black men have a greater life expectancy behind bars than in society. What access to health care do these incarcerated men receive that those outside do not receive? What food choices are made for these men by the state that differ from the food choices/ food access of men outside of jail? And, perhaps most importantly, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we motivate communities and non-profits to fill the void the government is either unable or unwilling to fill?

Second, we must deal with the less tangible, more rhetorical implications of this study. The individual who alerted me to this study suggested that this study’s findings may have harmful rhetorical value in extreme hands. Less euphemistically, those who believe that black culture is inherently problematic may view such a study as a confirmation that the mass incarceration of blacks is positive, or at least that the government can no longer provide policy solutions to resolve the problems of the black inner-city. In fact, the comments under the Reuters article appear to confirm the individual’s suggestion.

In his 2004 book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men, Alford A. Young, a leading professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, argued that many of the perceived cultural problems of black men are in fact a rational response to structural limitations, such as the lack of jobs, educational resources, and safe neighborhoods. As we move toward true equality for all Americans, we should take into account the ways in which structures affect behavioral ideology, demanding that both change for the betterment of oft-marginalized demographic groups. We should strive for a time when a teacher can look a black boy in the face and, without any qualifications, tell him that his life chances will be better in school than in jail.

Photo Credit: jgurbisz

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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