Locking Up Black Men Is Having a Disastrous Impact on America, But Not the One You'd Think


The news: There's bad news, and then there's more bad news.

The bad news is that, judging by the math, America's answer to crime over the past few decades has been to lock up all the black men.

The other bad news is how this impacts the unexpected field of medical research. According to a new study, more than 30 years of health data might be skewed because so many black males were unable to participate, resulting in a stunted set of findings that might take years to correct.

I guess that's what happens when massive numbers of your potential subjects are sitting in prison cells.

Image Credit: AP

Good job, America. Emily Wang of Yale University published her findings in Health Affairs this month. She found that the disproportionate number of incarcerated black men — especially high school dropouts — casts serious doubt on countless "studies examining everything from cardiovascular health to bone marrow."

Vox reports that some of the most important medical research in existence, particularly around afflictions like heart disease that significantly affect black American men, lacks a vital component in the absence of black male participants. As a result, researchers who lost contact with their subjects often didn't know if it was because they simply lost interest or were sent to prison.

Wang estimates that 65% fall into the latter camp.

Yet the original reason behind this was surprisingly noble. According to Vox, 90% of new drugs developed during the mid-20th century were tested on prisoners before anyone else. This produced a guinea pig system "ripe for abuse," and by the early 1970s, reports began circulating about prisoners being exposed to hallucinogens, radioactive chemicals and, in one notorious case, having their skin color changed without their consent.

This all changed in 1978. The government outlawed all federal research that wasn't tied explicitly to the impact of imprisonment itself or that didn't involve issues disproportionately affecting prisoners. It was a move designed presumably to protect the inmates, but it also cut short numerous long-term studies involving incarcerated black men — too many to accurately calculate.

This was unexpected for researchers. And the problem only worsened with time and the precipitous rise of mass incarceration, which continues locking up black males at disproportionate rates.

Image Credit: The Sentencing Project

America's prison population has quadrupled since 1980, largely due to longer sentences for drug offenders. Compounding this is the fact that black Americans make up 12% of the population but 40% of those arrested on drug charges, despite usage rates that are comparable to whites.

Image Credit: The Sentencing Project

In response to findings like those presented here, some researchers have begun advocating a rule change. If subjects are sent to prison, for instance, scientists want them to be able to continue participating in studies they were involved in pre-incarceration.

However, this doesn't seem primed to happen anytime soon, and the larger problem of mass incarceration persists, especially along racial lines. Perhaps realizing how seriously this issue impacts other areas of society will spur greater action towards change. But for now, we're left with a serious and possibly irreplaceable gap in medical research — and black people must keep shouldering the burden.

What a mess.