A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America

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When Dr. John Snow first traced an outbreak of cholera to a water pump in the Soho district of London in 1854, the field of epidemiology was born. Ernest Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons takes the same concepts and tools of public health that have successfully tracked epidemics of flu, tuberculosis, and AIDS to make the case that our current unprecedented level of imprisonment has become an epidemic. Drucker passionately argues that imprisonment—originally conceived as a response to the crimes of individuals—has become mass incarceration: a destabilizing force, a plague upon our body politic, that undermines families and communities, damaging the very social structures that prevent crime.

Described as a “towering achievement” (Ira Glasser) and “the clearest and most intelligible case for a reevaluation of how we view incarceration” (Spectrum Culture), A Plague of Prisons offers a cutting-edge perspective on criminal justice in twenty-first-century America that “could help to shame the U.S. public into demanding remedial action” (The Lancet).

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
At its best, public health researcher Drucker's impassioned argument for prison reform offers a primer on epidemiological methodology. At its worst, his attempts to repackage incarceration as a "modern plague" overshadows the clearly pressing need for new inquiry and viable solutions. Drucker begins by explaining epidemiological tools and terminology (such as an "agent, host, and environment" framework), and demonstrates how these tools are used in case studies that suggest parallels to the "mass incarceration epidemic." Well-written chapters on cholera, and his own groundbreaking research on AIDS, allow him to demonstrate his storytelling skills. Though Drucker's elevated terminology and reliance on epidemiology stresses the magnitude of the issue, he neglects to analyze the implications and limits of this semantic maneuver. His final Public Health Model reflects the dead end of his reframing exercise, offering only vague solutions that range from changing society's attitudes about incarceration to the lightweight "implementing community-based truth and reconciliation dialogues and forums." Drucker's honesty in opposing epidemiology's social science goal of "describing the suffering of human beings ‘with the tears removed'" limits its social science usefulness. As a result, the book preaches solely to "plague fighters" and others who agree with conventional liberal wisdom on the U.S. prison system. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Drucker (scholar in residence, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice; epidemiology, Columbia Univ.) traces the field of epidemiology from the 1854 London cholera outbreak through the AIDS crisis. The prison industrial complex resembles the outbreak of a horrific disease, Drucker argues, and should be dealt with in the same manner. He contends that instead of solving crime, mass incarceration has infected our communities and stricken them with devastating symptoms. Prison costs have skyrocketed, inmates' families have been torn apart, and the system is overwhelmingly stratified by race and class. The final chapter offers several proposals for curing mass incarceration, including a reevaluation of the U.S. government's "War on Drugs," responsible for a vast majority of arrests leading to incarceration. VERDICT This material is not new, but the metaphor of prisons as plague is certainly novel. Drucker states his case in a clear, readable style, and the book should appeal to readers interested in criminal justice, especially those who enjoy revisiting an old subject in a new light. Not essential, but a good addition to the existing body of prison-reform titles.—Frances Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY
Michelle Alexander
With voluminous data and meticulous analysis, [Drucker] persuasively demonstrates in his provocative new book…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
From the Publisher

"With voluminous data and meticulous analysis, [Drucker] persuasively demonstrates in his provocative new book that the unprecedented surge in incarceration in recent decades is a social catastrophe on the scale of the worst global epidemics."
–Michelle Alexander, The Washington Post

"How did America’s addiction to prisons and mass incarceration get its start and how did it spread from state to state? Of the many attempts to answer this question, none make as much sense as the explanation found in [this] book." —Philadelphia Inquirer

"Drucker uses the tools of his trade to examine the laws and their consequences...Treating drug addiction as a public-health problem rather than a crime to be punished would go a long way towards making America’s poor and minority communities stabler and better."
The Economist

"Wonderfully written and packed with insight."
—Todd Clear, dean of the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595584977
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 8/30/2011
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 824,420
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ernest Drucker is a scholar in residence and senior research associate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is professor emeritus of family and social medicine at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine and adjunct professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He is an NIH-funded researcher, editor-in-chief of the international Harm Reduction Journal, a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Global Health, and a Soros Justice Fellow. He is also a founder and former chairman of Doctors of the World/USA. He lives in New York City.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 An Epidemiological Riddle 1

2 Cholera in London: The Ghost Maps of Dr. Snow 11

3 AIDS: The Epidemiology of a New Disease 19

4 A Different Kind of Epidemic 37

5 Anatomy of an Outbreak: New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Prison Pump 50

6 Orders of Magnitude: The Relative Impact of Mass Incarceration 68

7 A Self-Sustaining Epidemic: Modes of Reproduction 78

8 Chronic Incapacitation: The Long Tail of Mass Incarceration 108

9 The Contagion of Punishment: Collateral Damage to Children and Families of Prisoners 141

10 Ending Mass Incarceration: A Public Health Model 163

Notes 191

Index 213

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