Here are some of the things we know about this new epidemic:
• The population involved is diverse: men and women, adults and children, different social classes.
• The onset was very rapid — in thirty-five years the population directly affected by this epidemic increased tenfold, from 250,000 in 1970 to 2.5 million by 2009.
• The effects of the epidemic extend beyond actual cases — over 30 million have been affected in the last thirty years.
• Young minority men have been affected most severely: although they make up only 3 percent of the U.S. population, young black and Hispanic men constitute over 30 percent of the cases.
• While this epidemic is nationwide, most cases have occurred in the poorest neighborhoods of America’s urban areas — in some communities, over 90 percent of families have afflicted members.
• Individuals who are afflicted are also socially marginalized and often become incapacitated for life — unable to find decent work, get proper housing, participate in the political system, or have a normal family life.
• The children of families affected by this new epidemic have lower life expectancy and are six to seven times more likely to acquire it themselves than the children of families not affected.
Like the sinking of the Titanic, this new event is a disaster — but it is no accident. Indeed, it is the result of laws and deliberate public policies, fueled by the expenditure of trillions of dollars of public funds, and supported by powerful political and economic interests. Although no known biological agent is involved, as with cholera and AIDS, this new epidemic exhibits all the characteristics of an infectious disease — spreading most rapidly by proximity and exposure to prior cases.
The new epidemic is mass incarceration — a plague of prisons.
Mass incarceration? The term seems out of place for America — a nation premised on individual rights and freedom. It conjures up images of brutal foreign tyrannies and totalitarian despots — widespread oppression and domination of individuals under regimes of state power built upon fear, terror, and the absence of effective legal protection. When we think of large-scale systems of imprisonment throughout history, we think of great crimes against humanity — Hitler’s network of diabolical concentration camps, or the vast hopelessness of Stalin’s archipelago of slave labor prison camps. Stalin’s system established a model for mass incarceration whose effects penetrated every corner of Russian society, shaping the experience of millions beyond those in the camps — most immediately the prisoners’ families. More broadly, it created an entire population living under the threat of arrest and arbitrary detention.
This model seems foreign to life in our democratic society — a product of different times and faraway places. Yet the facts about current-day American incarceration are stark. Today a total of 7.3 million individuals are under the control of the U.S. criminal justice system: 2.3 million prisoners behind bars, 800,000 parolees, and another 4.2 million people on probation. If this population had their own city, it would be the second largest in the country.
« Ernest Drucker, an internationally recognized public health scholar … contends that mass incarceration ought to be understood as a contagious disease, an epidemic of gargantuan proportions. With voluminous data and meticulous analysis, he persuasively demonstrates in his provocative new book, A Plague of Prisons, that the unprecedented surge in incarceration in recent decades is a social catastrophe on the scale of the worst global epidemics, and that modes of analysis employed by epidemiologists to combat plagues and similar public health crises are remarkably useful when assessing the origins, harm and potential cures for what he calls our ‘plague of imprisonment.' »
–THE WASHINGTON POST
« Ernest Drucker, an epidemiologist, uses the tools of his trade to examine the [Rockefeller] drug laws and their consequences [which] are unjust, unintended and easily remedied. Treating drug addiction as a public-health problem emphasizing treatment and harm-reduction rather than a crime to be punished would go a long way towards making America’s poor and minority communities stabler and better. »
« Wonderfully written and packed with insight, Ernest Drucker has added a new voice to the debate about prisons and provided a previously missing but enormously valuable scientific perspective. People who already think they know a lot about the problem of mass incarceration will learn from this book, and people who don’t know much about it will get everything they need to know. »
–TODD CLEAR, dean of the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice
« A towering achievement, A Plague of Prisons does something rare and valuable: it provides a new way of looking at, thinking about, and analyzing old and familiar data, thereby creating fresh insights into and understanding of a social catastrophe. »
–IRA GLASSER, former executive director, American Civil Liberties Union
« Drucker brings the tools of epidemiology, the informed perspective of a social critic, and the graceful language of a natural writer to illuminate the plague of incarceration that is crippling poor and primarily minority urban communities, and to make a clear, cogent call for reform. »
–JAMIE FELLNER, senior advisor, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch
« A seminal book by a truly gifted scholar. Read and weep and then pass along this important work to everyone who has a stake in reforming the contemporary U.S. criminal justice system — which is to say, all of us. »
–STEPHEN FLYNN, PhD, president, Center for National Policy
« A unique and groundbreaking work. Ernest Drucker helps us understand the consequences of our societal decision to incarcerate so many, and leads us to clear, tractable solutions to end this epidemic. »
–SANDRO GALEA, MD, DrPH, President of the Society of Epidemiological Research
« Ernest Drucker brings to his analysis the professional knowledge of an expert in epidemiology and public health, and the moral passion of someone who has devoted his life to humanitarian action on behalf of social justice. »
–RENEE C. FOX, Annenberg Professor Emerita of Social Sciences, University of Pennsylvania
« A careful, colorful, and much-needed examination of the causes and consequences of the epidemic of incarceration in the United States with enormous relevance for anyone concerned about public health, criminal justice, and public policy. »
–JIM CURRAN, dean, Rollins School of Public Health, and co-director, Emory Center for AIDS Research