Part of why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, is that the prison population keeps on growing, spreading like some kind of epidemic. According to Virginia Tech researchers, that's exactly what's happening. They did a study that found, going to prison is contageous.
A study by the Virginia Tech Bio-complexity Institute found incarceration rates in the U.S. increase the way a flu virus does,' infecting' people, who infect more people, and so on.
And here's one of the ways it happens:
"In the criminal justice world, if you have been incarcerated and you are released, we know that you're under greater surveillance than if you hadn’t been incarcerated and your associates are under greater surveillance as well. This applies not only to individuals, but to entire neighborhoods."
Virginia Tech sociology professor, James Hawden says the study showed that patterns of incarceration appear to follow pretty much the same model as patterns found in epidemiology. The 'infection' spreads in the same pattern as epidemics do, as if criminal behavior traveled through the air to the nearest person.
So, when someone in a social or family circle gets locked up, "It creates a feedback loop that fuels itself and that's what lead to ( for example) steeper incarceration growth rates among blacks than whites."
Hawdon, who directs the Center for Peace Studies at Virginia Tech says, new approaches could help break the pattern, like shorter prison sentences and a move toward restorative justice models.
"We have very long prison sentences compared to most of the industrialized world and that might not be the best strategy, especially for non-violent offenders. We may be doing ourselves more harm than good."
Hawdon says the prison epidemic acts like a positive feedback loop, that will only continue to grow larger as more people are locked up. And he points out, keeping people in prison is expensive.
"It's a lot better to have somebody out working and paying taxes than in prison being supported by taxes."