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Study Suggests Black Men Live Longer in Prison Than Out

Traditionally, African American men have not fared well in the United States when it comes to longevity. As a group, we are at the top of proportions of death by race and gender for all major acute and chronic illnesses and conditions, from homicide and cardiovascular disease to HIV/AIDS and cancer.

Although studies on health disparities have been trying to solve the problem of shorter life expectancy of African American men, a new study may have found a solution, albeit problematic and frightening.

A new study suggests that black men live longer when they are incarcerated than they do in free society. In fact, the authors assert that black men are half as likely to die at any given time if they’re in prison than if they are not. Titled “All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality Among Black and White North Carolina State Prisoners, 1995–2005” and published online July 7, 2011, in the Annals of Epidemiology, the study concluded that black prisoners seemed to be especially protected against alcohol- and drug-related deaths, as well as lethal accidents and certain chronic diseases.

The authors of the study, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also reported that the pattern was not applicable for white men, who, on the whole, were slightly more likely to die in prison than outside.

They compared mortality rates among state prisoners and other state residents to identify prisoners’ health care needs using prison records and state death records for 1995–2005 to estimate all-cause and cause-specific death rates among black and white male prisoners ages
20−79 years. Employing risk ratios to compare these observed deaths with the expected number on the basis of death rates among state residents, data revealed that the mortality of black prisoners was lower than that of black state residents for both traumatic and chronic causes of death. The mortality of white prisoners was lower than that of white state residents for accidents but greater for several chronic causes of death.

torrance t. stephens, ph.d.