News & Politics

Shocking New Report: Safest Place To Be a Black Man Is in Prison

A new study says the "big house" is the safest place to be a black man.

We’ve just learned that wealth disparities among whites, blacks and Latinos have reached critical mass. We’ve finally been able to acknowledge that the war on drugs is a racially charged exercise that targets "minorities" at a rate of incarceration 13 times that of their white counterparts, often for minor drug offenses. And now that we’ve realized the majority of America’s poor are people of color, we have the Heritage Foundation telling us that ownership of material goods means poor people aren’t actually as destitute as we thought. 

Now a new study from the Annals of Epidemiology says a black man is half as likely to die in prison as he is outside of prison. The study focused on 100,000 men, aged 20 to 79 years, held in North Carolina prisons between the years of 1995 and 2005. Sixty percent of those in the study were black. Researchers found that less than 1 percent of the imprisoned men (both black and white) died in that time period and there was no difference in the death rates between black and white men in prison.

After collecting data from the prison sample, researchers compared it to the general population. When they separated the 1 percent who died in prison by race and compared each group, they found that the ratio of imprisoned black men to non-imprisoned black men contrasted far more sharply than the ratio of imprisoned white men to non-imprisoned white men. In other words, black men died at a higher rate than white men, unless they were in prison.

The causes of death examined were homicide, suicide, accidents, heart disease and cancer. There was a 0.52 percent less chance that a black man would die from traumatic and chronic incidents in prison than out. Black men in prison were far more likely to receive better health care, especially for chronic illnesses like diabetes, less likely to die from drug or alcohol-related incidents, and less likely to be victims of murder while in prison.

The study alerts us to two main dangers of being a black man in civil society. Exposure to violent crime and lack of access to sufficient health care are the biggest killers of black men in the United States. "What's very sad about this is that if we are able to all of a sudden equalize or diminish these health inequalities that you see by race inside a place like prison, it should also be that in places like a poor neighborhood we should be able to diminish these sort of inequities," says Evelyn Patterson, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee who commented on the study for Reuters Health. "If it can be done [in prison], then certainly it can happen outside of prison."

Far from being a critique of prison life, the study ends up shaming civilian society. In the wake of the recent hunger strikes that have highlighted the detestable conditions in which California's Pelican Bay prisoners and other prisoners nationwide live, the study suggests that prison apparently got one thing right in the larger scheme of things. Or rather, society has deteriorated so rapidly that a man would purposely get incarcerated to enjoy the relative luxury of free health care that the outside world would not afford him.

But let’s not let prisons off the hook. Corporations, capitalists, the invisible hand of the market (call it what you will) all have a vested interest in perpetuating studies like this, just as they do in keeping prisoners alive and well. Rania Khalek reported for AlterNet recently on the free prison labor system that’s been extremely profitable for corporations--a system that for many years has gone without critique. As long as society believes that black men are a danger to society and to themselves, almost any action toward them becomes justified.

The renewed advocacy for better health care access that the report evokes is welcome, but that generalizes the effects of the study and ultimately dilutes the true focus. The laments of commentators who've written about the study reflect the usual coverage of any news where a black man is featured. “Sadly, Reuters reports that this is not all that surprising,” the Atlantic bemoans. “For [Dr. David] Rosen, one of the main messages from the study is the need to make the world outside of prison walls safer, and to make sure people living there have adequate access to healthcare,” another commentator from the University of Chapel Hill suggests.

With all the "shoulds" and "if onlys," there’s no analysis on the societal conditions that landed black men in the relative "utopia" that is prison. The war on drugs is 40 years old and its failed, racist policies have informed the way we see those most affected by it. Racial profiling is justified by police officers, the media and even in our consciousness; we are judge, juror and executioner of any black man suspected of any crime.

These studies, along with other outrageous claims of when and where life was better for blacks (remember that marriage pledge slavery ordeal?) become the only frame of reference we use to discuss black folks in society. If you were to go only by the media coverage of black people you would believe that the unsafest place for a black child is in the womb, but if born, the safest place is in prison, and ultimately, like the marriage pledge says, the best place for a black family to flourish was during slavery.

Meanwhile, studies like this one divert from the hard truths about our prison system that desperately need discussing. This study comes from asking very specific--and limited--questions. If we change the questions, we might get down to the root of the issue. Like, what are the specific policies and charges that led the 60 percent of the North Carolina inmates who are black to prison? What does it have to do with the police culture the war on drugs created? And why, just for good measure, are there so many cops on each corner of my majority-black, gentrified neighborhood?

Studies like this only add to the justification of the oppression of black men, rather than challenging the toxic societal conditions that land them behind bars or dead from violent crime or chronic disease. Unless we face the true causes of the findings of these studies and go beyond the sighs and moans they produce, we’re only perpetuating the problem we seek to address.

Rae Gomes is an associate editor at AlterNet and co-editor of the "Ten Things" column at the Nation magazine.
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