Stop the 'Plague of Prisons'


Noted scholar, researcher and epidemiologist Ernest Drucker, in his recent book, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America, utilizes his keen mind and decades of experience in an attempt to frame the ongoing debate over mass incarceration in America as a public health concern.

He hits the mark dead center.

Unfortunately, although the author makes his case in a style that is lucid, compelling and easy (even for non-specialists) to comprehend, most Americans are still not ready to listen to—let alone heed—his message.

We're on a collision course with a preventable disaster that affects us all, not just those behind bars and their families.

Drucker certainly is not the first writer and scholar to make the point that any nation that consistently builds more prisons than universities is on the verge of diving head-first into the dustbin of history.

Another author, Professor Michelle Alexander, made the same case (albeit from a different perspective) in her 2010 classic The New Jim Crow. And no, it's not too soon to begin calling her book a genuine “classic.”

Drucker constructs an “epidemiological riddle” to acquaint readers with the tools of his craft: numbers and the interpretation of them. Utilizing lessons drawn from the sinking of the Titanic, he demonstrates how social problems can be understood, predictions made, and solutions formulated by accurately analyzing data about a catastrophe .

The author doesn't initially tell the reader what the disaster is. But analyzing the gender, class and ages of those who lived and those who died after the “unsinkable” ocean liner went down in the North Atlantic, the answer becomes obvious. And it provides an instant education in how epidemiology works.

From the preventable tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic with such a great loss of life (all the ship's designers had to do was to include enough lifeboats, but since the vessel was supposedly “unsinkable,” why bother?) Drucker turns to the equally preventable cholera outbreaks of the mid-1800s in London.

One of the world's first epidemiologists, physician John Snow, traced the cause of the disease to the Broad Street water pump in the Soho section of London, which was pulling water contaminated with feces from the Thames River. He also noticed that no workers at a nearby brewery were coming down with the disease, and rightly surmised that was because they boiled their water.

Epidemic over.

Similarly, since 2004, Drucker has been gathering statistics on mass incarceration and, along with others (including Todd Clear, noted criminologist and now dean of the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice), he now can postulate that the plague of prisons we've experienced in this country in the last 35 years is causing an increase in crime—rather than reducing crime.

“Clear has documented that crime rates in Florida communities with high incarceration rates can be traced directly to increases in imprisonment,” writes Drucker. “In other words, what started out as a punishment for crime — prison — now has become a source of the very crime it seeks to control.”

Mass incarceration feeds on itself and destabilizes entire communities.

With 2.3 million prisoners behind bars, America might have reached its incarceration apogee in 2010, when prison rates began to fall for the first time since the early 1970s, when the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws ushered in the age of mass incarceration.

But many reformers are still holding their collective breath.

Why? Because of the new wrinkle of prison privatization.

As more states seek to cut corners and save dollars in response to budgetary constraints private operators are offering pie-in-the-sky quick fixes.

But their “solutions” are a chimera, and could cost dearly not too far down the line in terms of again increasing incarceration numbers.

No corporation invests hundreds of millions of dollars and then sets about putting itself out of business. The palpable fear among reformers is that corporate lobbyists will convince legislators who, in many states, have always demonstrated a proclivity for making onerous laws—especially in the area of addiction—that do more harm than good) to keep their “hotels” full.

Faced with such disincentives, commonsense approaches that Drucker proposes relating to decreasing prison populations, reducing recidivism, improving reentry, and, most importantly, lowering crime rates at the same time face an uphill battle against the well-funded prison/industrial complex.

But at least he's broken new ground.

If, a decade down the road, your new Chevy Volt is being produced in Ohio's Lucasville Maximum State prison, rather than in the GM Lordstown plant about 60 miles outside of Cleveland where it's currently being built, you'll then understand the long-term goal of mass incarceration and prison privatization.

And why it should be of concern to you too.

Is this too outlandish a scenario? Try telling that to the millions of hard-working Americans who've lost their homes to the greed of Wall Street over the last seven or eight years.

Corporations have amply demonstrated they literally will stop at nothing to maximize profits, and the prison population is a demographic without adequate advocacy. This is the public health train wreck that Ernest Drucker and others like him are attempting to prevent.

Mansfield Frazier serves as the executive director of Neighborhood Solutions, Cleveland.. His column can currently be seen weekly on and The Cleveland Leader. He also occasionally contributes to The Daily Beast. Frazier is the co-publisher of Reentry Advocate, a magazine that currently goes into all Ohio prisons, select prisons in Michigan, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He welcomes reader comments.

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