By Dr R. Balashankar
A Plague of Prisons: Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America, Ernest Drucker, The New Press, Pp 226 (HB), $26.95
America today has the highest number of people in jail — 2.3 million. And an astonishing 7.3 million individuals are under the control of the US criminal justice system. The numbers are comparable only to the overflowing prisons of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Increasingly, policy makers and social scientists are getting alarmed at this trend, concerned about its implications. Ernest Drucker a scholar in criminal justice in his book A Plague of Prisons: Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America points out that there has been a steep growth in arrests. “In the past thirty-five years, the United States has increased its incarcerated population tenfold.” On an average 10 million people have been arrested in each of the last twenty-five years. In 2008 it was 14 million. Says Drucker, “…our system of mass incarceration impacts an even larger population. These innocent victims must also be counted as an important part of the true magnitude of the epidemic.” He is referring to the children and siblings of those jailed.
The ‘epidemic’ as Drucker calls it takes a huge toll on the public treasure too. Averaging over $25,000 dollar per inmate, or about $60 billion annually, prisons are a huge drain on the exchequer. Socially, states that have high rate of incarceration also have a high rate of crime, meaning the jails, which set out to be deterrents for crime are probably spurring it.
A huge number of cases involve drug abuse. Even a casual smoker or someone in possession of small quantities are arrested and jailed. Another chunk of those in jail are parole jumpers. The number of the black and Hispanic people in prisons across the US indicates a serious social malaise. According to statistics quoted by Drucker, in New York, these two communities, who form about 30 per cent of the state’s population account for 72.3 per cent of all drug incarcerations.
Drucker mentions how even a small, non-violent crime is punished with custody and how this first brush with criminal justice leaves the young people scarred and branded for life. Once arrested, these people, mostly young men, lose several opportunities in life, kept out of the system — education, employment and a decent respectful social status. He is calling incarceration an epidemic because it shows all the symptoms of being one in America —spreading fast, affecting a huge population, being contagious, with no apparent immediate cure.
The book also discusses the ‘prison industry’ that works on the cycle of lawyers, courts, investigative officials with victims being the sole raw material. Everyone other than the victim is making a profit out of it.
Thought-provoking and humane, Drucker compels the reader to think anew on the questions relating to crime and punishment, the point at which justice becomes remote, without a human touch. Drucker, among other things, is a scholar in residence and senior research associate at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. This is an incisive book on modern criminal justice system that needs to be taken seriously.
(The New Press, 38 Greene Street, New York, NY 10013)