The Perkins Perspective | Reviews | Spring 2013
A Plague of Prisons
By Michael F. Blevins, JD, MDiv, LLM
A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of
Mass Incarceration in America
By Ernest Drucker
New York: The New Press, 2011, 240 pp.
“Solutions are easy. The real difficulty lies in discovering the problem.” Albert Einstein
"If you do not understand white supremacy — what it is and how it works — you will be confused about everything you ‘think’ you understand.” Neely Fuller
In recent years, we have certainly seen a surge of attention inside and outside of faith communities directed toward the undeniably stunning proliferation of “mass incarceration” in the United States, a phenomenon especially marked since the escalation of the so-called “War on Drugs” under the Reagan administration and continuing today.
Supporters of criminal justice reform have been increasingly re-energized and re-focused in taking on the “elephant in the room” in our national discourse, particularly since the 2010 publication of Michelle Alexander’s widely acclaimed best-seller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
An "Epidemic" of Arrests
In his most recent book A Plague of Prisons, public health researcher and educator Ernest Drucker, MD, has made an important contribution to the reform movement. In sum and substance, Drucker, from his vantage point in urban New York City, has handed us a 216-page detailed diagnosis of — and prevention plan for — what he metaphorically describes as a national “epidemic” of arrests, imprisonment, and post-prison supervision with “perverse” effects that should receive the same kind of attention that medical emergencies and epidemics receive.
Specifically, Drucker gives us a vivid vocabulary and viewpoint — that of analytical epidemiology — with which to more completely understand and communicate the alarming dynamics, dysfunction, and devastation caused by imprisoning vast segments of our population, and doing so disproportionately to black Americans. Here is his thesis:
“… data in hand, we will try to learn enough about mass incarceration’s epidemiology to understand the agents responsible (the “prison pump”) and the vectors that enable its transmission. We will also consider this epidemic’s implications for the future of our larger society — implications that appear to run well beyond prison’s effects on those behind bars. This epidemiological paradigm will allow us to see the rapid growth and huge prevalence of mass incarceration in a new way, as a public health and social catastrophe that requires urgent action …”
After explaining and applying to the “plague” of mass incarceration such public health concepts and tools as YYLs (years of life lost), orders of magnitude, anatomy of the outbreak, incidence and prevalence, modes of reproduction, mapping, growth rates, burden of disease, agent-host-environment, exposure, case studies, initial infections, contagion, chronic incapacitation, and (civic) death, the author devotes the final fourth of his book to the question that Michelle Alexander has decided not to elaborate on, so far: What now?
Drucker offers a threefold plan for prevention, using the public health model:
- Primary (prevention of new cases): Reforming drug laws, non-incarceration of nonviolent offenders, elimination of mandatory sentencing laws, increasing the visibility and accountability of policing (especially stop and frisks), and taking on the prison-industrial complex.
- Secondary (treatment of patients): Treatment — not detention — for drug abuse, improve (make more humane and constructive) jail and prison facilities and policies, advocate and litigate to limit and humanize arrests and pretrial detention, and hold prosecutorial excesses accountable.
- Tertiary (palliative care): Restoring opportunities for employment, the right to vote, access to housing and education opportunities, further physical and mental health treatment, and — most “striking and potentially powerful”: turning to Restorative Justice approaches that include Truth and Reconciliation process(es).
Still Further to Go
Drucker attempts, I think with modest success, to illustrate the efficacy of a public-health model through comparing our plague of prisons with the dynamics of a cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London in 1854, as well as tracing epidemics since then of flu, tuberculosis, and AIDS. And the doctor presents us — with more effectiveness in my opinion — with a handful of positive “plague fighter” case studies from places such as Tulia, Texas, and Great Barrington, New York; and the inspiration of “heroes fighting mass incarceration” such as prisoners’ rights organizations such as Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), the Soros Foundations and its Open Society Institute Social Justice Fellowship Program, the Drug Policy Alliance, and various civil liberties unions.
In spite of the author’s correct observation that mass incarceration has had an infectious, devastating (even deadly) effect on black and poor communities, and although he presents a modest representative regimen of common-sense prevention strategies, my major concern with Drucker’s well-conceived, insightful and professionally written book is simply this: I suggest that because he fails to identify the core disease — the most insidious ongoing epidemic — belying mass incarceration, that is 400 years of White Supremacy, ignores its history, the doctor accordingly falls short in his prescriptions for fighting (more specifically, preventing further growth of) our plague of prisons.
Our politically addictive “get tough,” harsh, and punitive approach to criminal justice is certainly a primary cause of mass incarceration. It is not, however, the source or sustaining factor. As Michelle Alexander has masterfully established, that dishonor goes to White Supremacy and the legacy of 250 years of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow segregation and discrimination, and the New Jim Crow (the War on Drugs and mass incarceration) of the last half-century.
I suggest that Drucker’s case would be stronger and even more useful if, building directly on Alexander’s work, he had addressed the evil — the moral disease, the epidemic — of white imperialism and domination — 400 years of ongoing White Supremacy with which we have yet to seriously reckon. God have mercy on us all.
Michael Blevins, JD, MDiv, LLM (Intercultural Human Rights) was a defense attorney for 10 years and is an ordained pastor. He currently is a human rights advocate and activist who teaches ethics and philosophy at the college level and was recently the founding executive director of the NE Iowa Peace & Justice Center in Decorah, Iowa.
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