A Different Kind of Epidemic
Here are some of the things we know about this new epidemic:
• The population involved is diverse: men and women, adults and children, different social classes.
• The onset was very rapid -- in thirty-five years the population directly affected by this epidemic increased tenfold, from 250,000 in 1970 to 2.5 million by 2009.
• The effects of the epidemic extend beyond actual cases -- over 30 million have been affected in the last thirty years.
• Young minority men have been affected most severely: although they make up only 3 percent of the U.S. population, young black and Hispanic men constitute over 30 percent of the cases.
• While this epidemic is nationwide, most cases have occurred in the poorest neighborhoods of America's urban areas -- in
some communities, over 90 percent of families have afflicted members.
• Individuals who are afflicted are also socially marginalized
and often become incapacitated for life -- unable to find decent work,
get proper housing, participate in the political system, or have a
normal family life.
• The children of families affected by this new epidemic
have lower life expectancy and are six to seven times more likely to
acquire it themselves than the children of families not affected.
Like the sinking of the Titanic, this new event is a disaster -- but it is no accident. Indeed, it is the result of laws and deliberate
public policies, fueled by the expenditure of trillions of dollars of
public funds, and supported by powerful political and economic
interests. Although no known biological agent is involved, as with
cholera and AIDS, this new epidemic exhibits all the characteristics
of an infectious disease -- spreading most rapidly by proximity
and exposure to prior cases.
The new epidemic is mass incarceration -- a plague of prisons.
Mass incarceration? The term seems out of place for America --
a nation premised on individual rights and freedom. It conjures
up images of brutal foreign tyrannies and totalitarian despots --
oppression and domination of individuals under regimes
of state power built upon fear, terror, and the absence of
effective legal protection. When we think of large-scale systems of
imprisonment throughout history, we think of great crimes against
humanity -- Hitler's network of diabolical concentration camps, or
the vast hopelessness of Stalin's archipelago of slave labor prison
camps. Stalin's system established a model for mass incarceration
whose effects penetrated every corner of Russian society, shaping
the experience of millions beyond those in the camps -- most
immediately the prisoners' families. More broadly, it created an entire
population living under the threat of arrest and arbitrary detention.
This model seems foreign to life in our democratic society -- a
product of different times and faraway places. Yet the facts about
current-day American incarceration are stark. Today a total of 7.3
million individuals are under the control of the U.S. criminal justice
system: 2.3 million prisoners behind bars, 800,000 parolees, and
another 4.2 million people on probation. If this population had their
own city, it would be the second largest in the country.