beyond crime and punishment by jason silverstein
It is one of the great ironies of American society: prisoners are constitutionally guaranteed healthcare, but former prisoners are not. The prison health paradox is one dramatic way to think about the health disparities of impoverished minorities in the United States. In 2010, Evelyn Patterson found that “prison appears to be a healthier place than the typical environment of the nonincarcerated black male population.” Indeed, during incarceration, black-white mortality differences vanish. But once released, we see something else entirely. The mortality rate skyrockets. The deadliest time is the first two weeks after release, when former inmates have a 12.7 times higher risk of death than the general population and a 129 times higher risk of drug overdose.
The people most likely to suffer the negative health effects of incarceration are also the people most likely to already suffer from health disparities. Because African Americans are incarcerated at a rate higher than whites, racial health disparities are ultimately worsened by the effects of incarceration. In their Du Bois Review piece, Schnittker, Massolgia, and Uggen remind us that the mass in mass incarceration “is indeed ‘mass’ in the sense that it is now large enough to affect an entire demographic group.” In Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, we learn that more African American men are imprisoned today than enslaved in 1850. Incarceration does not only threaten the long-term health of individuals, but entire communities. In a justice system plagued by racial bias, incarceration threatens the health of an entire race.