The Perverse Effects of Prison on Black Men’s Mental Health

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Black men who’ve been incarcerated are psychologically better off when another family member goes up the river—and that’s not a good sign.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: Bart Everson/Flickr)

It’s probably no surprise that spending time in prison can be hard on a person’s psychological well-being. You might also expect that, for someone who’s been in prison, watching another family member go through the same experience would be especially difficult. On that latter point you’d be wrong: According to a newsurvey of African-American men, the well-being of former inmates actually increased when their relatives went to prison. This, the researchers argue, hints that prison erases empathy—and damages society in the process.

“We’re just figuring out that incarceration is a problem,” says Tony Brown, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and the study’s lead author. Today, 20 percent of black men will spend time behind bars at some point in their lifetimes, compared to just three percent of white men. That’s already taking a toll on black communities around the country.

“It’s a horrible thing,” Brown says. “When they come back, [they ’re] no longer able to empathize and connect” with families and communities that need them.

Twenty percent of black men will spend time behind bars at some point in their lifetimes.

Brown and his colleagues Mary Laske Bell and Evelyn Patterson based their conclusions on data from the National Survey of American Life, which focused primarily on the experiences of black Americans, including their experiences with family members who’ve gone to prison. Focusing specifically on black men, Brown, Laske Bell, and Patterson hypothesized that having a family member go to prison would cut into a man’s psychological well-being, especially if he’d done time in prison. After all, someone who’s been incarcerated is better prepared to feel the pain of a relative who’s now behind bars. Or so they thought.

“We started with the idea that having a family member incarcerated would be really detrimental” for a person’s mental health, Brown says, especially when that person had been in prison. “What we found was the opposite.”

The researchers measured psychological distress with a series of six questions—for example, “In the past 30 days, about how often did you feel so sad nothing could cheer you up?”—and then asked how much having a family member in jail or prison affected distress. For those men who’d never been incarcerated, having a family member in prison increased distress by about 15 percent, as the team had expected. But for those who’d been behind bars, having a family member in the same boat decreased distress by about 10 percent.

That, Brown says, is a sign that black men who’ve been to prison have “lost the capacity to empathize.” This would likely be a consequence of having to harden oneself in order to survive inside prison walls. In ongoing work, Brown is looking at the effects of prison on women as well as the effects on people’s health outcomes, such as obesity.

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