a close up of a hand holding a pen filling out a survey

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently, Futurity.org, a website running research news from America’s top universities, featured an interesting article in it’s heath and medicine segment. Prison linked to obesity among black men, proclaimed the title. The article referenced a study that saw researchers pull data from the 2001-2003 National Survey of American Life. The survey included 1,140 black men and accounted for their relationship to their family, age, income, education, physical activity and access to health insurance.

According to the report, the odds of obesity for incarcerated black men decreased by 42 percent for men that did not have close family members incarcerated, and, “black men with criminal records and close family members in jail or prison may be subject to stressors (such as physical separation from a loved one, problems adjusting to life on the outside, and empathy for their incarcerated family member), which may cause them to overeat.”

But is this accurate?

First of all, in a country with the world’s highest rate of incarceration, a pool of 1,140 black men is a very small sample size. Further, the article does not link to the full study, does not mention who the research group is, and does not indicate the presence of a control group.

Questions arise: were the men obese when they started their sentences? What was the quality of food being served to the sample group? Were the men buying extra food or were they supplied with extra food from the outside? Were there underlying medical or mental issues?

Stepping back further, the study continues to falter. A quote pulled and highlighted in the article states: “…mass incarcerations scar lives—and results in higher rates of obesity for black men—because of the myriad of traumatic events that take place…” Which begs the question, which traumatic events? The trauma of being incarcerated? Of being a man of color in America? Trauma that lead to the offense? Again, the piece raises more questions than answers.

While it appears that the author has good intentions of drawing attention to what they feel is an important problem with the American prison system, is knowledge of this supposed correlation going to lead to amendments in the current shortfalls in federal prisons? Data from 2014 show people of color were incarcerated at a rate of 5 times more than their Caucasian peers, a gap that is only starting to close now. Those statistics are steeped in income inequality, racial tensions, outdated notions, political idealism – the laundry list of why there are more people of color in American prisons is as long as the equally dirty laundry list of why America incarcerates 1 in 37 adults across the board.

When we take a big step back, look at the much larger picture and try to fit this “black men and obesity” piece into the puzzle, the picture only shows what prison reformers have been saying for decades: the system doesn’t work. Not for black men. Not for white men. Not for women. Not for children. Not for society.

When you have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, the highest rate of recidivism in the world, for-profit private prisons that turn to severe budget cuts that affect the wellbeing of the inmates, and a completely disproportionate race imbalance behind bars, the issue is not who outweighs who. The issue is that prison itself is a problem, and changes need to be made for the sake of everyone inside and out of it, regardless of their weight, height, color, and identity.

Research is good. Let’s not discount the time and effort that went into finding this odd link among prison, black men, and obesity. But let’s not get caught up in the minutiae when dollars and sense can go towards funding sweeping reform that will make a greater impact.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily NewsPrison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.


About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).