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

by Ernest Drucker

Rating: 4.3/5.0

Publisher: The New Press

In June of 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report that declared the global war on drugs a dismal failure. In its findings, a panel that included Kofi Annan, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, as well as decidedly non-liberals like George Schultz, secretary of state to President Reagan, suggested that governments consider legalizing and regulating drug use; recommended that drug addiction be treated as a health issue and not a criminal matter; and encouraged the development of social and other youth-based programs aimed as an alternative to the current rallying cries of “zero tolerance” and, of course, Just Say No. It likely came as a shock to Americans whose views on incarceration haven’t evolved beyond that of Warden Norton. Indeed, this approach to drug enforcement will likely die hard: the Obama administration was quick to restate its support for America’s drug policies, while on popular reality TV shows like “Cops” and the “Police Women of…” series, law enforcement officials act like world beaters who just brought down Pablo Escobar every time they bust some street corner squirrel with a minute amount of weed.

As more such reports make headlines and activist medical experts continue to demonstrate the far-reaching, negative societal impacts of mass incarceration, it’s becoming increasingly indisputable that the methods by which non-violent drug crimes and imprisonment are handled in this country are in serious need of revision. It is this sensibility that drives Ernest Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America, a deeply researched and wholly convincing book that should become a key text in the subject of criminal justice reform. Drucker, whose resume includes front-line work in the Bronx treating drug addiction and AIDS from its earliest outbreak in the United States, succinctly shows how epidemiology (simply, the science of public health) can be used to explain how mass incarceration shares the major characteristics of any epidemic, including its rate of growth, vast scale, and self-sustaining nature. Drucker doesn’t write like a doctor, though, and that’s a good thing: he writes in such way that a doctorate is not required to understand epidemiology’s major constructs.

The author eases the reader in slowly. Plague’s first three chapters are like Epidemiology 101: chapter 1 introduces readers to the science via a riddle (hint: the answer was later made into a melodramatic cash cow of a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet); chapter 2 explores the London cholera outbreak of 1854 and details how Dr. John Snow first applied the methods that have come to define epidemiology in identifying the source of this outbreak; chapter 3 describes the advent of AIDS in America and the role Drucker’s discipline played in understanding its causes and, equally importantly, how to treat it. From there, he turns to his primary subject of the characteristics of modern mass incarceration, citing the Rockefeller drug laws of 1973 as the “pump” that instigated what he considers a 30-plus year epidemic and describing, in sometimes heartbreaking fashion, the far-reaching effects of the country’s highly punitive drug enforcement practices: the mechanical, mandatory sentences for non-violent repeat offenders; the disproportionate toll exacted on minorities in our country’s poorest neighborhoods; reduced opportunities for employment and housing; the impacts of incarceration on an offender’s family.

And this is not some drugged out ex-Haight-Ashbury hippie bitching about how the cops won’t leave him alone; this is a highly educated, respected doctor who rolls up a big fatty of facts to support his arguments. All kidding aside, the book is one of urgency, and Drucker eloquently frames mass incarceration as among American society’s most destructive ills. A Plague of Prisons’ final chapter acts as both a summary of the doctor’s suggestions for remedying this situation without compromising public safety and as a call to action, covering everything from the prisoner intake process to the more obvious issues like prosecution of low-level drug crimes. To make his case even more convincing, Drucker includes examples of how grass-roots efforts in places as far-flung as Tulia, TX and Great Barrington, MA have corrected the past injustices of those states’ harsh drug prosecutions.

Reform of both the criminal justice system and American drug policy is often invoked in the wrong terms, and frankly, too often by the wrong people and for the wrong reasons. With A Plague of Prisons, Ernest Drucker offers perhaps the clearest and most intelligible case for a re-evaluation of how we view incarceration and its lasting impacts across all segments of society. To supporters of the status quo, Drucker must be an absolute nightmare: a credentialed doctor with a solid reputation and years of social work to his name who can speak eloquently about topics like drug abuse and imprisonment without asking to please pass the joint or quoting a Cheech and Chong movie in between pothead giggles. Plague is a compelling book from start to finish and an important blueprint detailing how America’s criminal justice system is past due for improvements.

by Eric Dennis

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