Epidemiologist Traces the Roots of Mass Incarceration

Epidemiologist Traces the Roots of Mass Incarceration


By Bobbi Booker for the Philadelphia Tribune

Thursday, the government said the U.S. prison population dropped for the third straight year in 2012. The Bureau of Justice Statistics said there were more than 1.5 million prison inmates last year.

That’s a drop of 1.7 percent from 2011. The prison population hit a high of more than 2.5 million inmates in 2009. Despite the overall decline, the federal prison population actually rose by nearly 1,500 inmates last year. The state population dropped by nearly 30,000 inmates.

One thing is certain, the population involved is diverse: men and women, adults and children, different social classes. During a fatal cholera outbreak in 19th-century London, local physician Dr. John Snow traced the source of the disease to a single water pump in Soho.

From his experiment was born the discipline of epidemiology, rooted in the idea that social and environmental forces are behind all disease outbreaks. Since then, epidemiology has successfully tracked AIDS, the flu and tuberculosis. Now, in “A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America” (The New Press, $18.95), internationally-renowned epidemiologist Ernest Drucker uses the same science to track one of the largest and most covert social epidemics of our time: mass incarceration.

Drucker spent 20 years treating drug addiction and another 20 studying AIDS in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the South Bronx and the world, and he uses the public health and epidemiological concepts in his book. Drucker argues that imprisonment has become an epidemic in this country, a destabilizing force that undermines families and communities, damaging the very social structures that prevent crime.

“The point is, people don’t know what epidemiology is; they used to think I treated skin disease,” said Drucker. “But what it is is the science of the health of population, like medicine is the science of the health of individual. This is kind of a teaching story about how much class matters. The whole tale of imprisonment, and our epic of mass imprisonment, now is a tale of enormous disparity of class and race.”

“A Plague of Prisons” changes the collective frame of reference for analyzing and approaching our flawed criminal justice system and deftly lays the groundwork for change.

Contact Staff Writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or bbooker@phillytrib.com.


  1. Join the National Campaign for Justice & Freedom- We must work overtime collectively to dismantle the “Plague of Prisons”- The ground work for change begins with Freeing the Wrongfully Convicted from America’s prisons- Free Marquez Ridge http://www.ripoffreport.com (Search Judge Rebecca Pilshaw)- Help Mend the Fatal Blow to the Constitution- “The Nation is Watching Kansas Inaction on a 17 year case- Needless suffering on Mr. Ridge and his family- Like the Free Marquez Ridge page on facebook-