Book Brief: A Plague of Prisons

Ernest Drucker
The New Press, September 2011
ISBN 978-1-59558-497-7
240 pages

Reviwed by HHR editorial assistant Judith Fitzpatrick

Ernest Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America analyzes a pressing social issue through an epidemiologic lens. Applying public health theory to “a different kind of epidemic,” Drucker frames mass incarceration as a chronic and self-sustaining plague that is damaging American families and communities. The author begins his argument by defining mass incarceration and listing its inherent epidemic characteristics: a rapid growth rate, large magnitude, and persistence. He identifies the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws as the “outbreak” of the plague, noting that the laws, which mandated extended sentences for drug offenses, drove the ballooning rates of incarceration that spanned from the mid-1970s to 1999. With 2.3 million Americans behind bars, 800,000 on parole, and another 4.2 million on probation, Drucker identifies large-scale arrests, sentencing, probation, and parole as drivers of the elevated incidence and overwhelming prevalence of imprisonment. He stresses the magnitude and severity of the “prison plague” by presenting data on years of life lost due to drug incarceration and the poor conditions and suffering status of health care in prisons. Furthering his argument that incarceration is plaguing the health and well being of the United States, he presents imprisonment as a force that destabilizes family life and leads to chronic incapacitation for prisoners even after they have been released.

Drucker closes his book with his prescription for the epidemic, which follows the public health model and offers primary, secondary, and tertiary strategies for prevention.