Health + Wellness

Prison Time Shortens Life Spans for Black Americans, But Not Whites


A stint behind bars can significantly shorten the life expectancy of Black Americans, but not their white counterparts, new research has found.

Black Americans who have spent time in jail or prison are 65% more likely to die prematurely, even if it’s been years since their incarceration, according to an analysis of data from a decades-long federal study.

However, jail time did not appear to have any meaningful impact on the long-term health of white former inmates, researchers recently reported in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“That is on top of the fact that Black individuals are much more likely to become incarcerated in the first place than white individuals,” lead researcher Dr. Benjamin Bovell-Ammon, a visiting fellow in general internal medicine at Boston Medical Center says.

“Those two factors combined suggest to us that mass incarceration could be contributing to the overall disparities in life expectancy that we see between Black and white individuals,” he adds.

The United States puts more people behind bars than any country in the world, with its incarcerated population quadrupling over the last four decades, researchers said in background notes.

Black people and those in other minority groups have been disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, with a stint in prison during young adulthood as common among Black men as college graduation is for white men, the researchers report.

RELATED: Do Black Men Get Better Health Care In Prison?

What the study shows

Previous studies have suggested that jail time itself might be harmful to people’s long-term health. To examine that possibility, Bovell-Ammon’s team analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a study run by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) since 1979.

The BLS study recruited more than 7,900 people between 15 and 22 years of age in 1979 and followed them through 2018. About half were male, and 38% were Black.

“This is the first generation of Americans coming of age in what many call the era of mass incarceration, which started to take off in the ’80s,” Bovell-Ammon notes. “These individuals would be approaching 60 years of age, so any deaths that have occurred are by definition premature.”

During an average follow-up of 35 years, 478 people had been jailed at least once and 818 had died. The BLS data did not track

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