« "Behind the Death Penalty Cheers" | Main | "American Prison Culture in an International Context: An Examination of Prisons in America, The Netherlands, and Israel" »

September 10, 2011

Looking at mass incarceration as a kind of "new epidemic"

Book300 A new book published by The New Press brings a kind of "clinical" perspective to the phenomenon of mass incarceration.  The book is titled "A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America," and is written by Ernest Drucker, 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.  The New Press website for the book is at this link, and the book has its own full website at this link.  Here is part of an excerpt from the book's website:

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 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.

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.

September 10, 2011 at 06:30 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Looking at mass incarceration as a kind of "new epidemic":


The only problem with the epidemic analogy is that this epidemic does not attack innocents.

Only those that repeatedly violate the law need be concerned.

Posted by: mjs | Sep 10, 2011 7:52:57 PM

An epidemic can affect anyone. We are at a tipping point. Clearly there is a reason that the size of our prison population is getting more attention. It is not just a liberal rant. The concern about the inmate explosion caused by the war on drugs and excessive prison terms are being expressed across the political spectrum eg. Cato, Reason, Right on Crime.

Thanks for the link.

Posted by: beth | Sep 10, 2011 8:24:39 PM

beth --

mjs is spot on. It's really easy to stay out of jail. Stay away from drugs, curb your temper and don't steal stuff. If people will do those three simple, normal things, the jail population will wither to next to nothing.

Let's assume arguendo that drugs should be legal. Maybe taxes should be lower too, but as long as they are where they are -- and as long as drugs are illegal -- you can't cheat on your taxes and your can't do drugs either. This is not exactly rocket science.

If you want to lobby Congress to get rid of the drug laws, have at it. Until you succeed, if people choose to defy the law, they assume the consequences.

According to the article, there are 2.3 million people locked up. That is a little less than three-quarters of one percent of the population. What that means is that 99.25% of the population is NOT locked up. Only in an alternate universe could such a thing be termed an "incarcerated nation."

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 10, 2011 9:13:55 PM

Bill, We can both discuss the difficulties of getting in or staying out of jail. What we think about that really doesn't matter.

This is what I see changing the tide of support for incarceration. You quote the figure 2.3 million as the number of incarcerated people. That is less than 1% so lets go with that. When you add those who are on parole or probation the % comes to about 3%. Now lets talk about the number of people who have a connection with these individuals. I don't' have a figure that is documented and don't really trust all studies as evidence based anyway, but 5 is reasonable, and 25 is not out of the question.

This means that anywhere from 15% to 75% of the population has seen the Criminal Justice System up close and personal. Whether or not there is support for our ever increasing incarceration depends on what those who have observed the process for those they know love or dislike think about it.

You may be correct. Perhaps there has been no deminishing support for the cascade of laws, prosecution and incarceration, but perhaps not. I think we may be looking at a re evaluation.

Now please don't accuse me of being a bleeding heart who has compassion for those who murder, rape and rob. Your know I do not. This is a much bigger debate about the size and scope of government. How much of our treasure - human and financial should be expended on controling life style, environmental, social behavior issues.

Posted by: beth | Sep 10, 2011 10:10:46 PM

It appears the approach is to study groups of individuals with similar behaviors in order to identify common environmental and social factors. I recently learned of a group that has applied and extended social group analysis techniques devised by sociologists to the study of the spread of infections. Perhaps what is happening is the improved techniques devised by the medical researchers are being reapplied to sociological problems.

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 11, 2011 7:36:17 AM

As others have acknowledged, the reason we have so many prisons and prisoners in the U.S. is because so many people commit crimes. The United States is by far the most criminal society in the world. We just can't seem to obey the laws that we the people pass. So we have to be locked up. Other countries have lower rates of crime, and consequently lower rates of imprisonment, because they are more law-abiding and generally more moral people than we are.


Posted by: Anonymous | Sep 11, 2011 7:06:20 PM

Anonymous --

I wrote to beth that it's actually easy to stay out of jail. Stay away from drugs, curb your temper and don't steal stuff. If people will do those three simple things, the jail population in this country will wither to next to nothing. Do you disagree?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 12, 2011 10:11:51 AM

I feel compelled to respond to Bill Otis and Anonymous.

In response to your specific query, Anonymous, the answer is definitely "no." There is no relationship between the US incarceration rates and crime rates. Crime rates actually dropped well before the epidemic, and one of the best ironic explanations anyone has come up with for at least part of that drop is Malcolm Gladwell.

Meanwhile, the US incarceration rate, despite low crime rates, is by far the highest in the recorded history of ANY nation or society, an historical fact with which I still have have not fully come to grips. In addition, the US incarceration rate is five to eight times higher than any other civilized nation.

Think of it this way: do we humans learn more of a "lesson" from five years of incarceration versus three years? No, the research shows we don't. In the US we nevertheless sentence people for the five years as opposed to the three years. Multiply that by tens of thousands of different sentences across the 50 states and the federal government and you have the problem in a nutshell. It doesn't accomplish a damn thing except cost huge amounts of money and waste people's lives.

Bill Otis, there's a good paper (to which I will try to post a link at some point if I can find it) by a researcher who did ride-alongs with the Phoenix police department. Near the end of their shifts, if the officers were still below their arrest quota they would arrest parole/probation violators.

Their most common method was to target black men riding bicycles without helmets in the bad part of town. They knew they would probably be on parole or probation because: (1) they were black, (2) they were too poor to have a car and/or their license was suspended, and (3) they were in a bad part of town. They'd arrest them under the helmet law plus anything else that turned up in the frisk. Plus they would hassle them about "proving" they owned the bike and hadn't stolen it. Another favorite was black men in the bad part of town for loitering or open container. (Remember that when you are on parole or probation you need to "lead a law-abiding life" which means that ANY violation of the law is a prison-worthy violation. Proof of that violation need be shown only by a preponderance of evidence to a judge with few hearsay or other due process protections. In other words, they just put a cop up on the stand to say whatever he feels like to a judge, and you are found guilty of a parole violation and sent to prison.)

So maybe you should add bike riding to drugs, anger and theft as another thing to avoid if you don't want to go to prison.

Posted by: James | Sep 12, 2011 7:48:25 PM

James --

The proposition that the prison population consists in any significant measure of black men who were arrested because they were riding bikes without wearing helmets is beyond absurd.

And this is without getting into your even more absurd notion that there is an arrest quota for each SHIFT. I doubt that even you believe such a thing.

I was an AUSA for 18 years, and I have a real good idea of how people end up in prison. I would happily state under oath that failure to wear a helmet while bicycling has nothing -- as in zip, zero, nada, nothing -- to do with winding up in federal prison.

My original proposition was that the prison population would wither away if people would stay away from drugs, curb their temper and refrain from stealing. I repeat that here without qualification (which is easy since no one has actually contradicted it).

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 12, 2011 8:21:23 PM

"It's really easy to stay out of jail. Stay away from drugs, curb your temper and don't steal stuff. If people will do those three simple, normal things, the jail population will wither to next to nothing."

Bill, its "really easy" if you've been raised in a loving and supportive family, with a loving mother and father, if you've had a superb education, if you've had good employment opportunities, and if you are a white man.

Posted by: anon15 | Sep 12, 2011 10:58:09 PM

"It's really easy to stay out of jail. Stay away from drugs, curb your temper[,]don't steal stuff..."

...and be sure to have a well-functioning prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Sep 13, 2011 4:51:45 PM

Michael Drake --

"...and be sure to have a well-functioning prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices."

I want to assure you that I will do my darndest to get all that stuff as soon as I find out what it is.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 13, 2011 8:05:01 PM

anon15 --

Show me a person who stays away from drugs, curbs his temper and doesn't steal stuff, and I will show you a person who's not in jail, no matter what his sex, race, family or education.

As I've said, I was an AUSA for 18 years and I have a real good idea of what lands people in prison. It has a name: B-E-H-A-V-I-O-R.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 13, 2011 8:11:29 PM

"I will do my darndest to get all that stuff as soon as I find out what it is."

Presumably you already have all that stuff, Bill. After all, you find it easy to avoid the things one needs to avoid to stay out of prison.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Sep 14, 2011 2:22:40 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB