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Incarceration—It’s Catching

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Posted on Oct 21, 2011

By Michelle Alexander

“A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America”
A book by Ernest Drucker

“The Collapse of American Criminal Justice”
A book by William J. Stuntz

“He caught a case,” said Maurice, a black teenager whom I’d been tutoring for a while, as part of a program to address the needs of “at risk” youth.

“You say that like he caught a cold or something. What happened?” I asked.

“Don’t know. He just caught a case. He’s down at the jail. I’m telling you it’s easier to catch a case around here than to catch a cold.”

I remember thinking: You don’t just catch a case.

Or maybe you do.

Ernest Drucker, an internationally recognized public health scholar, professor and physician, 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, harms and potential cures for what he calls our “plague of imprisonment.”

As with any metaphor, the comparison falls short in both obvious and subtle ways. But Drucker is relentless in his pursuit of a paradigm shift, pointing out that even the most obvious differences may be less significant than we may imagine. Biology isn’t everything, he explains, even when fighting real plagues. Many non-biological, social factors frequently determine who lives and who dies.


book cover


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


By Ernest Drucker


New Press, 226 pages


Buy the book


book cover


The Collapse of American Criminal Justice


By William J. Stuntz


Belknap Press, 413 pages


Buy the book

In the case of mass imprisonment, it is possible to calculate potential years of life lost and measure who is most at risk. It is also possible to identify the precise time of the initial outbreak, the means of transmission, intergenerational trends and the ways in which the epidemic has become self-sustaining over time.

Drucker traces the moment of outbreak to the War on Drugs. Beginning with the Rockefeller drug laws adopted in New York state in the 1970s, followed by President Ronald Reagan’s declaration of war in 1982, our nation set out to incarcerate millions of Americans for relatively minor crimes and drug offenses. Such arrests go a long way toward explaining how the “infection” spreads. Arrests and convictions for drug offenses, Drucker writes, “are the most important agent of transmission that creates new cases of incarceration.” 

Even in the South Bronx, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden communities in New York, only 3 percent of convictions are for felonies. The relatively minor offenses of vagrancy, loitering and drug possession account for half of all arrests, with marijuana possession increasingly becoming the most frequent drug charge.

These seemingly minor arrests are the means by which young people contract the virus of imprisonment, which soon becomes a full-blown disease—one they struggle to overcome for the rest of their lives. A criminal record virtually guarantees a lifetime of discrimination in employment, housing, education and public benefits. Millions are locked out of the mainstream society and economy, increasing the likelihood that they will commit more serious crimes. In this way, the epidemic of incarceration has become self-perpetuating, like a plague.

Drucker rightly acknowledges that the risk of imprisonment is not evenly felt; it is concentrated in poor, black and Hispanic communities. An estimated 50 percent of all extended black and Hispanic families in the United States have had a member incarcerated in the past 35 years. For the poorest in both groups, the figure approaches 100 percent. Drucker points out that black males between 21 and 44 are 40 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white males of the same age group. In light of numerous studies showing that people of all races are about equally likely to use and sell illegal drugs, this is a telling statistic, to say the least.

Drucker’s argument leaves a nagging question unanswered, however: Why is this happening? Such a question is nonsensical when applied to a biological disease like cholera or a natural disaster like a hurricane. Only God knows why a tornado strikes or why a new, strange disease emerges. But mass imprisonment is different. We did this. Why? And why did we do it primarily to the urban poor?

William J. Stuntz believes he has an answer. A Harvard Law professor who died earlier this year, Stuntz argues in “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” that the stunning surge in imprisonment aimed at poor people of color can be explained by two factors: a dramatic spike in crime in the 1950s and ’60s coupled with profound changes in how our democracy is structured. Urban residents, he observes, once had far more control over police and prosecutors, and could exert more influence in the jury box. When those who bear the costs of both crime and punishment exercise significant power over those who enforce the law, a more balanced and empathetic approach to crime is the predictable result.

To see long excerpts from “A Plague of Prisons” at Google Books, click here.

Stuntz contrasts the experience of early European immigrants with African-Americans to make his point. When European immigrants flooded our nation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a crime wave followed, but it did not lead to mass imprisonment. The communities populated by recent immigrants held tremendous power. Then, as now, district attorneys and trial judges were elected at the county level, not at the city level, but suburbs were sparsely populated. As Stuntz puts it, back then, “Cities contained the votes that mattered.” Spared harsh prison sentences and afforded considerable support, the young men who had left Europe for the United States eventually found work and turned away from crime.

When African-Americans flooded Northern urban cities during the Great Migration—fleeing Jim Crow segregation, white lynch mobs and severe poverty in the South—they faced a radically different political and economic landscape. Although they found work at higher wages, they were shut out of jobs and careers that offered any hope of rising paychecks and responsibility. They also confronted a changed political map. White flight and suburbanization resulted in a dramatic shift of power away from urban neighborhoods to counties. “This shift in local populations mattered enormously,” Stuntz notes, “because prosecutors and judges are usually elected at the county level.” The result was that predominately white suburban voters, who do not have to cope with high rates of crime but who hold negative stereotypes of the urban poor, exercised far more power over urban criminal justice than in the past.

Stuntz concludes that “one reason black criminals from poor neighborhoods have been treated with so much more severity than criminals from white immigrant communities in America’s past is because the former are more easily categorized as The Other, as a people whose lives are separate from the lives of those who judge them.” His answer to the “othering” of black America is to grant urban residents far more power over the criminal justice system than they have today.

There is certainly some merit to Stuntz’s claims. But the fact that so many of the cities and counties with the highest incarceration rates are also places in which blacks hold significant power leads one to wonder whether local control would truly be a miracle cure.

Missing from both Stuntz’s and Drucker’s analyses is a deeper understanding of how race has operated: much like a virus, infecting belief systems and attitudes of people of all colors and mutating into new institutional forms. The story of racial disadvantage in America is not simply one of whites versus people of color. There is a long history of relatively educated and privileged blacks turning against the least advantaged while also claiming to be spokespersons for them—a history that has its roots in the struggles to end slavery and Jim Crow. This history suggests that the early immigrant experience may be less relevant than Stuntz imagines and that class divisions among blacks may thwart the intent of his proposed reforms.

Drucker, for his part, applies the right epidemiological tools, but in the end may have diagnosed the wrong disease. Some other disease seems to be ravaging our nation—an epidemic that first broke out as slavery, later as Jim Crow, and now has mutated, resurfacing in a new form. Perhaps mass incarceration ought to be understood as the latest strain of an epidemic that started at the time of our nation’s founding and still has yet to be cured.

Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University.

© 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/
Washington Post Writers Group


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cpb's avatar

By cpb, October 26, 2011 at 10:36 pm Link to this comment

“If we had a justice system concerned with personal responsibility then a certain ex-president and his faithful ward Dick, along with several of their henchmen would be defending themselves from torture accusations right now. But we don’t. The justice system prides its self on being harsh and swift. But only if you’re too poor to get out of it’s way.”

- darkcycle


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By N. Joseph Potts, October 26, 2011 at 5:45 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Somehow, this discussion seems to have missed the MASSIVE federalization of the laws, the court system, and the police, the last chiefly through funding “federal aid to states.”

This nationalization of the “justice” system further and greatly separates those receiving the “justice” from those meting it out.

This COULD be effectively fought at the local level by refusing federal dollars, but . . . did I just say “refusing dollars?”

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By Jaded Prole, October 25, 2011 at 3:38 am Link to this comment

I’m glad to see that some have picked up on the economic aspect of this plague. Not only are private prisons our fastest growing industry, it must be noted that they supply cheap, if not slave labor to other industries including the Federal Government. As the failing economic system pushes many to the streets, they are arrested for petty crimes like vagrancy, shoplifting, drug possession . . . and moved into the prisons. There they are directed to jobs ranging from roadwork and cleaning to factories contracting prison labor (which may be connected to the prison industry directly. Prisoners maintain our cities, sew uniforms for our military and assemble parts for the bombs and weapons we use to imprison other nations.

This growing prison system is essential to late stage capitalism which is the real disease that needs to be eradicated.

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By aacme, October 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Looking for the reasons for the prison explosive in strictly sociological arenas is a mistake.
It is increasingly obvious that the axiom “Follow the Money” applies more often than not in delving into the events and trends of the last several decades. The rise of private prisons, the rise of availability of public money for law enforcement rather than social problem-solving, the War on Drugs, with both (all?) sides standing to lose if the pressure was dropped and the price of drugs fell. With all sides pumping money into lobbying, doubtless including the drug sellers, to keep the war going, to build more private and public prisons, it is approaching a time when there won’t be anyone else to put in jail, unless of course we are forced to start in on white people.
Coupled with never-ending external wars, this is what we have come up with to replace an authentic economy. Until we go back to making widgets that everyone else wants, and living a society that everyone else wants to import and emulate, this is what we do.

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skimohawk's avatar

By skimohawk, October 23, 2011 at 11:35 pm Link to this comment

take a deep breath… and try to look at the (potential) positive side:

if all the bankers and inside-traders who were responsible for the financial fiasco
all the warmongers, lobbyists, consultants, and associated liars who got us involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., etc.,
all the corporate moguls who repeatedly violate federal and state environmental laws with illegal dumping, fuel spills, oil spills, etc.,

were ever brought to trial and convicted,
we might have enough jail cells for them all!

... just tryin’ to walk on the sunny side of the street here, folks!

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By gerard, October 23, 2011 at 9:00 pm Link to this comment

Another important factor seldom verbalized which tends to maintain the injustices of incarceration of black men was stated recently by Kenyou Farrow when he pointed out in connection with Troy Davis’ execution that persecuting black people helps to hold white society together by perpetuating the myth if “white supremacy.” (my words, not a direct quote) 
  At the level of clan society, any human organization “unites” or “coheres” partly due to keeping consciousness of “difference” alive.
We have not come far out of “blood sacrifice” today as a ritual to preserve social cohesion.
  Once having become conscious of the manipulative power of this fact, we should be able to move beyond it—but it has to be admitted to consciousness and revolted against. It is a powerful support of prejudice which the people of the world are trying to overthrow, with the help of modern transportation and electronic technology. But it dies hard because it appeals to egotism, nationalism, patriotism and a host of false loyalties.

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By Rixar13, October 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm Link to this comment

Inside America’s Prison Industry (2011)

I’m watching it right now on CNBC….

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By Chris Pebble, October 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thirty years ago no black man in his right mind wanted to go to jail.  Today no young black man feels he’s a real man until he’s been been in and out.

The “case virus” in black males is aspirational, and no vaccine against it will work until gangsta culture is put front and center.

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skimohawk's avatar

By skimohawk, October 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm Link to this comment

as Basoflakes said: “Follow the money”.

some interesting pictures:

it’s not rocket science, folks.
it’s big business.
follow the money.

to those still asking “why?”, consider the mindset of those on the other side of the argument, a good sample of which can be found here:

what I find disturbing is that URL I posted last was right up at the top of the list of Google search results for “US prison population”.

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darkcycle's avatar

By darkcycle, October 22, 2011 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment

I too worked in a facet of corrections…I was a psychologist at a County jail and at the same County’s Youth Detention facility. If the justice system were really about personal responsibility, then the people I was seeing were primarily responsible for being poor and ethnic. If you were poor and non-white you were twice as likely to be held in custody. If you got bail, it was usually a bail you could not afford.  While over and over I watched middle class white males released on personal recognizance.
The ability to afford an attorney makes all the difference. I watched people wait as long as two weeks to be assigned to and then meet with a Public Defender, who is too harried to pay attention to the case. I watched a PD ask for bail from a judge, and when the Judge asked what assurances he had to give that the accused would not be a flight risk, the PD just shrugged and sat down. Remanded to custody without so much as a hand gesture in his defense.
If we had a justice system concerned with personal responsibility then a certain ex-president and his faithful ward Dick, along with several of their henchmen would be defending themselves from torture accusations right now. But we don’t. The justice system prides its self on being harsh and swift. But only if you’re too poor to get out of it’s way.

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By Puamana, October 22, 2011 at 2:26 pm Link to this comment

It’s one of the reasons the Federal Government will never legalize cannabis.

1) they are making far too much money distributing it themselves

2) the more young people they can imprison, the richer the prison owners get

3) the more they proscribe cannabis, the more the BigPharma contributes to their reelection campaigns…

An endless circle of corruption and slavery.

That’s also why legislation won’t fix this.  Only the take-down of the crony-capitalist system will.

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drbhelthi's avatar

By drbhelthi, October 22, 2011 at 9:13 am Link to this comment

While many of us see the policies that send so many people to prison as wrong, that doesn’t
excuse personal behavior. Any useful correction must teach personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility is a fleeting term, when the USGOV has illegally imported illegal drugs with USGOV vehicles, since “Viet Nam,” and currently guards the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Yet, in the U.S.A., cannabis sativa, established as the most healthy natural herb in existence in the 1800s, continues to be declared as illegal.  And the garbage media of medicine report “no medicinal value”.  Mumerous patents have been issued for cannabis extracts, raising the question of who is responsible for the medical media disinformation?

Yet, the politically favored receive contracts for bigger and costlier prisons, in which to lock up youth with a cannabis toke in possession.  Leveling felonies against youth, instead of focussing on the million-dollar drug dealers in the USGOV.

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By Puamana, October 22, 2011 at 12:12 am Link to this comment

There is an even stronger correlation to slavery than Ms. Alexander alludes to:  In today’s for-profit, privatized prison system, the corporations who run them find the prisoners to be a very convenient source of near slave-labor, paying hourly or daily wages that are lower than many you find in India,
China and other parts of Asia.  These are highly-educated, (mostly) English-speaking bodies that are used to do everything from small manufacturing to ‘call-centers’ at pennies on the dollar wages.

What a great scam!

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D.R. Zing's avatar

By D.R. Zing, October 21, 2011 at 10:41 pm Link to this comment

This is an awesome article. Thanks, TruthDig, for
publishing it.

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By Edward Philliips, October 21, 2011 at 8:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Drug War and Prison Industrial Complex it goes hand in hand.  Lock-up the poor with the help of the Supreme Court the one place that “Destroyed” the Constitution and that is what this insane war has produced.  When you end this madness you end the “Torture” of hundreds of thousands of innocent victimless criminal Americans and their families.

Do you think it is time to hold these accomplices accountable for all the harm they have caused.

I do!

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By Kelly Ball, October 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What is the relationship of the increase of private prisons to the increase of incarceration? Are private corporations like Wackenhut composed of former members of Intelligence organizations from around the world, guilty of running huge amount of drugs for their nations black ops programs; and now imprison the very people that they snared? I’m really beginning to love evil.

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By Basoflakes, October 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm Link to this comment

Just follow the money.  New prisons are built all the time and the prison business is a very lucrative one.  What the author needs to do is find out who is getting paid, how much and where it is coming from.  Once you know that, you can start to put an end to America’s fascination with imprisoning anyone and everyone.

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By prosefights, October 21, 2011 at 12:50 pm Link to this comment

Couple indicted in nuclear weapons case

Leo Mascheroni’s wife.

Phone conversation with Marjorie Mascheroni Friday October 21, 2011

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By BrilliantBill, October 21, 2011 at 7:36 am Link to this comment

Compliments to Ms. Alexander on a well crafted piece of writing based on sound knowledge of the subject. It’s an all too rare pleasure to find such writing, especially on this subject.

These two books appear to be fine additions to the pantheon of penological scholarship. I can only hope they provide support for those in politics who actually want to build a just society. Sadly, our political landscape is so toxic the application of reason based on fact seems nearly useless. A similar book should be coming from Angela Davis one of these days. I believe it’s now past due on the publishing schedule she quoted me a year or two ago.

Meanwhile, those interested in this area may want to read the the book, “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice” by Paul Butler. It’s an eminently readable look at race and justice through the personal experiences of a former federal prosecutor.

And finally, while I appreciate the clever use of the “caught a case” linkage to Drucker’s book, I urge anyone who works in criminal justice to not allow it. I worked 10 years in California prisons and never allowed an inmate to use “caught a case” as a description of his experience. It’s a subtle way to avoid responsibility for actions. While many of us see the policies that send so many people to prison as wrong, that doesn’t excuse personal behavior. Any useful correction must teach personal responsibility.

Thanks again for a great read.

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