Mass incarceration overall hurts the health of Americans, leading to worse outcomes for the families and communities of men in prison, reported The Atlantic. The inmates themselves are at a very large risk of self-harm and violence immediately after their release. But a recent review of the impacts of incarceration on health published in The Lancet hints at a surprising upshot: Getting out of jail can be miserable, but going to jail can temporarily protect health—at least for some men.
For children and communities, the impacts of a parent’s incarceration are unequivocally bad, write study authors Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University and Emily Wang of Yale. Kids whose fathers go to jail are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, learning disabilities, and obesity, and they are more likely to do drugs later in life. Because criminal records dampen job opportunities, according to some studies people who live in neighborhoods with high levels of incarceration are more likely to experience asthma from dilapidated housing. These consequences are especially severe for children of color: Because black men are jailed disproportionately, a black child born in 1990 had a one-in-four chance of having their father imprisoned, Wildeman and Wong write.
But, paradoxically, going to prison can actually improve health—at least temporarily—for some inmates. Black male inmates, the authors write, have a lower mortality rate than similarly aged black men who aren’t in jail. The reason?
The risk of death from violent accidents, overdoses on drugs or alcohol, and homicides is much lower in prison than it is in the neighborhoods where these men would be living otherwise. What’s more, before the Affordable Care Act was passed, many states made it all but impossible for low-income, childless men to obtain health care. Under the ACA, 32 states expanded Medicaid to cover all poor adults, but 19 have not. Because of that, Wildeman and Wang write, prison is the first time many incarcerated young men receive regular health care.
The drop in mortality “is just an indicator of how dangerous the environment for African-Americans is on the outside, rather than being a function of how good the medical care is that they’re receiving” in prison, Wildeman told me.
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