The high incarceration rates of black men are known to have all sorts of negative effects on the inmates and the communities they leave behind. A new study out of Yale medical school and published in the journal Health Affairs hits on a less recognized problem: All that prison time makes it hard to study health conditions in black men.
The authors, led by medical school professor Emily Wang, note that in 1978 the federal government began restricting research on inmates to address a history of exploitative research practices in prisons. The regulation also created a particular challenge for health researchers, who often need to follow their subjects for years or decades to draw significant conclusions. When those subjects are imprisoned before a study is over, researchers usually have to stop following them. The Yale researchers wanted to know how the high rates of incarceration for black men—as many as one-third of whom will spend some time in jail in their lifetimes—affect their participation in health studies.
The Yale researchers looked at 14 long-term studies funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute on conditions like coronary heart disease, hypertension, arrhythmia, and sickle cell disease. “These are kind of the core studies of epidemiology, and if you’re unable to follow participants over time, you’re unable to make any meaningful conclusions about their health,” Wang said in an interview.
“Loss to follow-up”—the percentage of study participants who drop out before the research is completed—was broadly similar in most of these studies for black and white men and women. But in three of them, the research found that statistically significant higher percentages of black males dropped out of the studies. The researchers estimate that up to 65 percent of all black men who are “lost” to health studies are likely lost because they’ve gone to prison.
People drop out of health studies for lots of reasons, and this paper doesn’t conclude that incarceration has necessarily led to health conditions in black men being understudied compared to other groups. It does show, though, how the “out of sight, out of mind” dimension of our prison problem extends in surprising directions, especially when one particular segment of society spends so much time behind bars.
We might think of extremely old things as stately—books, or monuments, or historic homes. Not so for plants. The University of Chicago Press has a beautiful new book out called “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” by contemporary artist Rachel Sussman, which features photographs of 30 of the oldest continuously living organisms in the world. They’re a dry, scraggly lot, like 5,500-year-old, weather-worn Antarctic moss and a 2,000-year-old, brittle-looking pafuri baobab tree in South Africa. Like the very oldest human beings, tucked away in nursing homes, the oldest plants tend to live in out-of-the-way places, stolid in the desert or reproducing slowly beneath the permafrost. But unlike human beings, who fade away, these organisms quietly thrive, diligently repairing their aged molecules and stonewalling generations of pathogens. Most of the time these old things are an afterthought, but collected together, they begin to appear as the main event on Earth, with staying power that reduces the scope of our lives to a blink.
We leave DNA behind us everywhere we go, and legally, this discarded DNA is considered public property, free for anyone to scoop up and analyze. The “DNA artist” Heather Dewey-Hagborg of New York was featured in this space last year for sculptures that use anonymous DNA samples retrieved from sources like chewing gum and loose hairs to re-create the faces of the people who might have left them behind. Now she is out with two products that are meant to help you keep your discarded DNA private: Erase, a bleaching spray that deletes most of the DNA you leave behind, and Replace, which obfuscates the rest by adding random extra genetic material so a snoop won’t be able to tell what’s yours. Dewey-Hagborg introduces them in an ominous video (starring herself) that presents them as a kind of citizens’ defense against the looming DNA surveillance state. The two products are available starting in June for $99 for the pair, and while they may seem like a purely artistic commentary on DNA privacy, Dewey-Hagborg explained in an e-mail that she sees Erase and Replace as real consumer products. “I will announce sales when the time comes,” she wrote. “Right now I am planning to start with a batch of 100 and to see how it goes.”
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.