Black Men Safer in Prison? Something’s Wrong
by Tonyaa Weathersbee, BlackAmericaWeb.com
The next time someone quips about a brother being locked up for his own good, scarily enough, they may be right. According to findings recently published in the Annals of Epidemiology, black men are half as likely to die while in prison than out, as compared to white men, who were slightly more likely to die in prison than on the outside. Apparently, between 1995 and 2005, researchers studied around 100,000 men between the ages of 25 and 79 in the North Carolina prison system. Among other things, they found that black inmates were 30 and 40 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than black men who weren’t incarcerated, and they were also less likely to die of diabetes, alcohol and drug-related deaths and homicides than their boys back on the streets. This is what the drug war has wrought, people. It has siphoned off all the resources that could be used to help black men survive on the outside and invested it into keeping them alive on the inside. And in doing so, it has turned prisons into the new slave quarters – a place where black men trade their labor for three meals a day, free health care, shelter and other things that joblessness and marginalization often denies them when they’re free. Something is terribly wrong here. For the most part, these findings don’t surprise me. As I’ve stated in earlier columns, over the years, I’ve been amazed at the letters I receive from inmates. Some have discovered a thesaurus and a dictionary for the first time, and they make use of it by sitting down to write me. I found myself wondering whether they would be incarcerated if they had found an environment on the outside that was more supportive of their learning than looking to see them fail. I also know a woman who told me that her grandson learned to play the drums while incarcerated. He also got his GED and had begun working on college courses. Like most of his other friends, drug dealing got him locked up. I can see how this happens, though. When these guys are incarcerated, their basic survival needs – food, medical care and shelter – are being taken care of. That means that those who are inclined to do other things, like learn the dictionary or take courses or play an instrument, can focus on those things. But on the outside, they have to grapple with joblessness to take care of those needs. Right now, black males have an unemployment rate of 17.5 percent; for black male teenagers, it’s more than 40 percent. That number probably just includes the black men who actually had real jobs before the downturn hit because scores of black men, especially in inner cities, have spent much of their lives working menial, off-the-book jobs that go unreported in the official unemployment statistics. These are the guys who don’t have access to health care or affordable housing. They are the ones who succumb to the lure of the drug trade and wind up in prison for minor drug crimes. In a way, it almost seems like a conspiracy. Communities are supposed to be nurturing environments. They aren’t supposed to be so toxic to black men that they now live longer in prison, a place that is supposed to rehabilitate them so that they can be assets once they go back into their communities. Communities are supposed to be the places where they thrive, where they put down roots, where they vote and pay taxes, where they raise families and start businesses, not die prematurely from heart attacks, diabetes or violence. These findings ought to be a wake-up call for everyone else – especially those who persist in backing the billions being wasted in the four-decades-old, failed War on Drugs. Because there’s no way in the world that prisons should be the places where black men go to live – and neighborhoods should be the places where they go to die.