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Eve Pell on America’s Culture of Punishment

Posted on Apr 24, 2009
book cover

By Eve Pell

When I was involved in prison reform in the early 1970s, my colleagues and I were shocked that our state, California, held so many prisoners, 22,000. Now, 35 years later, California’s prison population has ballooned to 165,000. Since 1973, the U.S. imprisonment rate has multiplied more than five times; we hold the dubious distinction of being the most imprisoning nation in the world.

Why does our nation, with 5 percent of the world’s people, have 25 percent of its prisoners, about 2 million? Why do we keep at least 25,000, maybe double that, in long-term isolation, a situation known to cause insanity, when other nations have more effective and humane methods of managing violence? Why do we inflict intense physical pain, sometimes to the point of death, with tasers, stun belts and restraint chairs at a time when violent crime is not on the increase?


book cover


Cruel and Unusual


By Dr. Anne-Marie Cusac


Yale University Press, 336 pages


Buy the book


Anne-Marie Cusac, an award-winning reporter (and published poet) with years of covering criminal justice issues, tackles these questions in her book “Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America.” In just-the-facts, dispassionate style, she traces the methods our society has used to discipline offenders and nonconformists, from 17th century floggings and stocks in the public square to 21st century super-maxes designed to deprive inmates of human contact. She chronicles the motivations driving such vengeful practices, from Protestant Christian beliefs in the devil and the sinful nature of man to public fear of crime whipped up by television cop shows and exploited by politicians. 

Cusac, who teaches communications at Roosevelt University in Chicago, also traces the history of American attitudes toward punishment from colonial days and the Rev. Jonathan Edwards in 1740 to modern-day Christian conservatives and the tortures at Abu Ghraib. (“All are by nature the children of wrath and heirs of hell … ,” preached Edwards, insisting that the wills of young “vipers” must be beaten down and broken.) Using a wide lens, she examines the intentional infliction of pain as a means to discipline and reform those who are deemed in need of chastisement, from lashings with cat-o’-nine-tails and boring holes in tongues with a hot iron, as was done in the Massachusetts colony, to hooding and beating inmates, or shackling them to restraint poles in freezing cold or searing heat, as happened recently in some U. S. prisons. The same philosophy extends to families: I was astonished to find that one can order spanking rods—a Speak Softly Spanking Stick, for instance—on the Internet, for administering biblically sanctioned punishment to one’s child.

Cusac links changes in attitudes toward punishment to changes in American culture. After the American Revolution, for example, the former colonists mitigated the harsh penalties imposed under monarchical rule, finding lesser punishments more in line with their new democracy. She describes the evolution of reformist and anti-reformist movements as they swept across the nation and conflicted with one another. 

To see long excerpts from “Cruel and Unusual,” click here.


What I found striking in this volume is the extent to which advances in behavioral science and pedagogical experience have played almost no role in the evolution of corrections: Sentencing policies and prison conditions stem from basic, often religious and primitive, attitudes and beliefs. The role prisons should play in our society is answered, most often, by the response to this question: Should offenders have their wills broken by pain and suffering, or do they retain some capacity for rehabilitation? As Cusac shows, we lean far more toward the former. 

In some schools of thought over the years, human beings were considered capable of redemption; in others, human nature was considered sinful and meriting only punishment. There were brief periods when, under the sway of Enlightenment principles, reformers like Benjamin Rush opposed physical punishment and the death penalty in favor of hard labor and solitary confinement—then viewed as a less punitive means of helping criminals to reform. But over time, as punishment migrated from the public square to walled-off prison cells, these “reforms” morphed into abuses—what Cusac calls “punishment creep,” perhaps because prisons were hidden from public view.

In the 19th century, liberationist movements evoked conflicting ideas: Abolitionists organized to stop the whipping and bondage of slavery, while pro-slavers favored the use of pain to maintain domination. In the Navy before 1850, officers used flogging to maintain discipline; later on, reformers organized to make flogging aboard ships unlawful. 

Throughout the book, prevailing philosophies of punishment seesaw back and forth as intellectual, political and religious tides wax and wane. Emerging science sometimes plays a role in the debates; backlashes to prevailing philosophies result in hardening or softening of attitudes. (Though attitudes seem to harden much more easily than they soften.) Cusac summarizes the work of scholars, commentators and law enforcement officials in order to arrive at generalizations describing different eras. 

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By Richard, May 3, 2009 at 8:23 am Link to this comment
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The US has become a police state ... these sort of things are now happening!

Steps have been taken to start legal action against the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the Lorain County Health Department for violating the constitutional rights of John and Jacqueline Stowers of LaGrange, Ohio.

The Stowers operate an organic food cooperative called Manna Storehouse. ODA and Lorain County Health Department agents forcefully raided their home and seized the family’s personal food supply, cell phones and personal computers.

On the morning of December 1, 2008, law enforcement officers forcefully entered the Stowers’ residence without first announcing they were police or stating the purpose of the visit. With guns drawn, they swiftly and immediately moved to the upstairs of the home, where ten children were in the middle of a home-schooling lesson. Officers then moved Jacqueline Stowers and her children to their living room, where they were held for more than six hours.

There has never been a complaint filed against Manna Storehouse or the Stowers related to the quality or healthfulness of the food distributed through the co-op.

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By hippie4ever, May 2, 2009 at 12:55 am Link to this comment

I was stunned that nowhere did the author refer to the fact that the majority of prisoners are adult African-American males. In a very real sense slavery never left American soil: first it was overt, then economic/social, and now it’s penal. And of course there’s money to be made with cheap labour, even cheaper than the horror show sweatshops in Asia or Mexico. America is a police state posing as a federal republic, and police states always have large prison populations. The Third Reich, the U.S.S.R. and the Peoples Republic of China use or have also used arbitrary law and police enforcement to solidify their rule.

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By Folktruther, April 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm Link to this comment

It’s the same in Calif, Chris.  the inmates are colored and the staff largely White.  And Washington and California are Progressive states.

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By mandinka, April 28, 2009 at 10:56 am Link to this comment

Gosh are all those people in prison just randomly selected to take a turn?? Or did they do something that put them there?? hertz I’ve read some dumb comments and poorly thought out ones but your are 2 thumbs up winning both categories

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By Chris Herz, April 28, 2009 at 3:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

40 years ago as a youngster I served 6 months of a two-year sentence for pot smoking.  I can’t say I was too badly treated (other than being incarcerated for an harmless activity) by the State of Maryland.  Anyhow, never having made any secret of all this, about ten years ago I was asked by my congregation (Quakers) to participate in prison ministry.

I was utterly appalled at the changes to the system.  First it was totally, completely racist.  Sure there were plenty of Blacks in jail when I was there, but today’s prisons are a sea of Black and Brown. 

In my home county of Frederick, Maryland with an African population of just 8% exactly one-half of all persons remanded to custody are of that persuasion.  This is typical.  In fact in Washington State the situation approaches the absurd.  That state is just 4% Black, yet something like 35% of prisoners are Black, last time I checked the numbers.

When recently called for jury duty it felt real good to stand up before the other jurors, the judge and the lawyers and publicly state the above and rebuke them for their criminal system.  I heartily recommend this enjoyable and cathartic experience. 

The real reason why the criminal justice system is so bad and the prisons now so large and so cruel, is that they are seen by the majority as the necessary devices for control of an inconvenient minority by racist Amerikkka.  This is all similar to the modality by which this dominant group seem to believe war is necessary to control all these nasty Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere.

I say all this as a white person.  And I am proud to stand up publicly and say all this in my own name.

Americo delenda est.

Chris Herz
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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By omniadeo, April 27, 2009 at 10:33 am Link to this comment

The causes of the growth of the prison industry are fairly simple. 1) Money is there to be made in large quantities from its combination of sanctioned slavery and public largesse; 2) Sadistic impulses are there to be satisfied while making the money.

One point that is often misunderstood however: The prison system is very cruel, but it is not the tasers and the technology of the guards that are the cruelest aspects, cruel as they are. The cruelest treatment in prison (as heavyrunner’s story illustrates) is at the hands of fellow inmates.

The prison system systematically and knowingly uses the violence of the socio-psychopathic few (there are some people who really should not be on the streets) to brutalize, control, and infect the vast majority of inmates who are either people who have made a bad mistake or two, and who would not have done so had they had a decent job or - even worse - simply altogether innocent people. Of course—since violence begets violence—some appreciable number of these are soon part of the socio-psychopathic few.

Prisons are rightly called Violence Universities.

It is simple fact of life in these United Sates, that a kid can be picked up for some victimless crime and thrown in jail to be tormented and raped by fellow inmates with guards looking the other way. If that is not “cruel and unusual punishment,” what is?

This society is rotting.

Please support and other prison reform organizations.

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By mandinka, April 26, 2009 at 3:36 pm Link to this comment

foxtrot, I’m not the 1 making a fool out of my self my hyphenating my race this is a self inflicted action. the ones who do this are the racists. Its unfortunate that this is a new phenonoman and causes the the rift in this country.
When you have 50% of adults paying no taxes and idiots like the president falsely asserting that the rich don’t pay their fair share.
I would suggest that before you throw the term around that you become a little better read and knowledgeable than you appear to be.

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By Folktruther, April 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm Link to this comment

Mandinka- I certainly hope Truthdig doens’t censor your comment.  It is always useful to have a racist like yourself commenting to show decent people hwo the other half thinks, if that is what you call it.

The US has been a highly racist country trhoughout its history- indeed, the Western tradition is a racist tradition of the White Man- but this is usually concealed and disguised nowdays among Progressives.  You serve to mirror American and Western history and thus embody an intellectual target for the rest of us.

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By mandinka, April 26, 2009 at 12:56 pm Link to this comment

the reason for our prison system is a society that used to have a common thread and desire has been shaken to its core by hyphenated americans. We are now black americans, hispanics, chinese americans etc. The melting pot has become an activity in which every one’s feelings are hurt and the solution is therefore lawyers and court. Our founding fathers must be rolling over in their graves to think all these piss pants live in this country

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By guacamaya, April 26, 2009 at 6:25 am Link to this comment

During the several times that I have visited the US I was shocked by the aggressive and unpleasant behavior of emigration and police officials. There seems to be a culture of wanting to humiliate. Why are even young women put in leg shackles and cuffed to a chain around their waist? In Europe even the most violent IRA terrorists are only handcuffed and are flown from one country to another like that. Leg chains is something out of the 19th century.

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By boggs, April 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm Link to this comment

The justice system works for congress and the congress works for the corporations that are making a pile of money through our incarceration policy.
Money, money, money. In America money is more valuable then a persons ‘life’.
All our congress people should be locked-up, it all starts there!

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By Folktruther, April 25, 2009 at 10:53 am Link to this comment

Heavyrunner, The American people don’t understand the brutality and irrationality of the criminal injustice system. This will increase as class inequality incrreaes.  The only way that the ruling class can systemtically steal from the popultion is to systematically lie to them. To the extent that doesn’t work, you have to coerce them.  And lie about the coercion.

The American population has lost any control of the Amerian power structure.  The can steal, lie and kill with impunity.  Supported and protected by both parties.  The sooner Americans realize this, the sooner we can organize to change the American power system.

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By heavyrunner, April 25, 2009 at 6:33 am Link to this comment

I am basically a non violent person, so I never saw violence as an answer to my problems.  I couldn’t afford the money for attorneys without sacrifice, but the authorities were talking about 1 year in prison for each felony count, so I had no choice but to borrow as much as it took.  In the end, I lost my career, my home and had to declare bankruptcy.

I am sure my story is not the only one like it.  Even now, some 13 years later, it’s painful to talk about and I am sure many people who read this think I am lying or confused.  No, the sad tale is pretty much nothing but the truth.  My friends just described my accuser’s actions as “evil” and they were right.

Any violence or uncontrolled behavior on my part would have resulted in more trouble for me and I was rational enough to realize that.  I was exiled to another state as a condition of my release from jail on $25,000 bond.  Originally the bail was set at $25,000 but when I met that and was released the evil woman somehow manipulated the prosecutor into raising the bail to $75,000 cash only.  When I was about to meet that by route of a second mortgage, they lowered the bail to $25,000 with the condition that I leave the state for 6 months.

If everyone was aware of how terrible our legal system is I would hope that the public pressure would be enough to bring about real change, but I am not very confident of that.  Those guys with guns and SWAT backup are very confident that their power will not be challenged successfully.

I was understandably upset and confused after my first stint in jail.  I was released at 4:00 a.m. or so onto the streets of a very dangerous part of downtown along with all the other prisoners released that day.  They do the release at that time so they are releasing the prisoners into empty streets.  As the prisoners step out onto the street there is a deputy there with a cardboard box who returns the knives, brass knuckles, guns, etc. to the prisoners who had their weapons legally when they were arrested.  I kid you not.

So I was released on Tuesday and then on Wednesday evening about 11:00 p.m., I heard someone knocking at my front door and hollering about “Police” etc.  I thought it was my friend Matt, a ribald Irishman who taught at the local elementary school, messing with me.  I was groggy and hardly awake and was wearing nothing but a t-shirt and unlocked the front door.  The first thing through the opening as the door swung open a bit was a 9 mm pistol in the hand of a black leather clad, helmeted SWAT officer, and several others were right behind and swarmed into my living room and surrounded me shouting “WHERE ARE YOUR GUNS!  WHERE ARE YOUR GUNS! right in my face.  I didn’t have any guns, but it was not believed when I told them that.  When they had determined that I was alone and clearly was not posing a threat to anyone they fanned out and searched my apartment for guns.  I was informed that my bail had been raised to $75,000, cash only, and that they were here to arrest me and take me back to jail.  I was allowed, after several requests, to put on some pants, but was not allowed to put on shoes.  I was then crammed into the back of what I had always thought was a dog warden truck because the box on the back of the truck looked too small to hold humans.  Inside were two other prisoners, one, totally drunk, who attacked me as soon as the door was closed on the shell on the back of the truck. 

And so on . . .

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By lester333, April 25, 2009 at 4:51 am Link to this comment

Heavyrunner:  How the hell did you afford $150,000 and deal with the humilliation of prison?  I would have thought of killing the bitch.

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By heavyrunner, April 24, 2009 at 7:10 pm Link to this comment

Several years ago I had an affair with a woman who appeared healthy on the surface.  She was the personnel director for the corporate offices of a fortune 500 company.  But 6 weeks into our relationship she accused me of stalking her and, believe me, this woman, 35 with sparkling good looks and a clever mind, knew how to manipulate the authorities.

Consequently I found myself involved with the criminal justice system, in jail with the worst criminals because she managed to get me charged with 12 felony counts of stalking.  This was at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and deputy prosecutors were loathe to resist the claims of prominent women due to the political climate.

Eventually I was able to plead guilty to one count misdemeanor violation of court order.  I had made one phone call to the woman after I had been served with a restraining order to try and find out what the hell was going on, and I had to plead guilty to that.  She got the order based on lies that were absurd on their face, yet were acted upon without analysis by the deputy prosecutor.

Anyway, I got enough of an inside look at the filth, overcrowding, abuse and madness of the inside of a large American city jail to know that when the pictures from Abu Grahib came out that it was a fine line between the King County Jail and the things I saw in those pictures.

Many of the people I was forced to interact with in my short (8 day) experience with incarceration in America seemed sadistic to me.  And I mean the people running the place, not just the criminals.

So my point is that we have a huge problem with torture in this country.  It is an attitude that has permeated our society.  It’s terrifying and I hope I never see the inside again.  I was completely innocent of the charges lodged against me.  Nonetheless I know from personal experience what it is like to have a heroin addict in the bunk (three high arrangement) some 18 inches below me, dry heave and throw up blood all night long, spraying his sputum everywhere around and telling me he was going to “kill me” when he caught his breath.  This was in a holding cell with maybe 35 prisoners and no guards.  At least half of the prisoners appeared to really belong in a mental institution to me.  There was a team of 3 deputies outside the cell monitoring several such large cells on video monitors.  That was it.  The place was filthy, and, though sardine can like they were, there were not enough bunks and several people had to sleep on the concrete floor.

My legal expenses ran to $150,000 to defend myself against the baseless charges of a confused person.  I shudder to think what would have happened had I not had the where with all to have hired a good staff of attorneys.

One thing to remember when you read about the 2 million in prison - many of them are completely innocent.  I don’t know what we do to get out of this mess, but Germany today is much different from the Nazi era, so there is hope, I guess, but it seems we have created a monster that is going to be very difficult to eliminate.

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By A. Z. Arrow, April 24, 2009 at 6:02 pm Link to this comment

Torture is a national disgrace, it is also illegal: The Nuremberg defense will not do -“I was only following orders.” Well, who gave these orders? Who authorized the use of torture? The law requires that those who colluded with these crimes be investigate, charged, brought to trail, and, if found guilty, sentenced—CIA operatives, private contractors, and Bushadministration officials included. There is no debate on this. Torture is a violation of the Geneva Convention that the United States Government initiated, help draft, and signed, along with other nations, on the dotted line. The US has imposed compliance with Geneva in its’ treaties and military alliances with other nations. Further, United States law makes it obligatory that Eric Holder bring charges against those responsible for the crime of torture. If Holder and/or Obama do not comply with these laws then they are engaged in a cover-up.

>>A. Z. Arrow

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By Folktruther, April 24, 2009 at 5:20 pm Link to this comment

As an obvious example of the barbarity of the American power system is the prosecution of medical pot.  It eases the poin and side effects of treating cancer.  California like other states has legalized it. 

But pot competes with the pharmacudical, liquer,and tobacco corporations and the huge profits of hard drugs, a fractiion of which wind up in government officals hands.  So the federal government prosecutes medical pot, and Obama, and Holder have stated they won’t legalize it.

An official under the city of Oakland distributed it, and at his trial the jury was not permitted to hear evidence that the bales of grass in warehouses were the city of Oakland, not his.  When they found out after finding him guilty they were so outraged that the judge had to let him go.

So they changed the law making conviction a manditory five year sentence.  In this morning’s LATimes, a man who ran a medical despensary in Morro bay, with the city’s approval, was convicted in LA.  The major of Morro Basy said the defendent was a “polite, compassinate man” who did everything the city asked of him.

But power is on the side of the corporations a drug dealers, not on the side of cancer victims.

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By JimM, April 24, 2009 at 5:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fascist Shit Corporations like Wackenhut dont want us to think this way. They want us to believe that even more prisons are needed.

The prison industry is huge and highly profitable.
they will never yield their methods or their profits unless forced to do so

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By Folktruther, April 24, 2009 at 10:59 am Link to this comment

The reason that the US has a barbaric prison system is quite simple. The American power structure is barbaric and mandates such a system as an exercise of its power.  Its the same reason that it currently mandates torture and bombing people’s homes and weddings abroad.  It has stolen so much from the American population that class inequality has reached monstrous proportions, and the ruling class uses barbarous methods to maintain and increase it.

And this is done under both the Dem and Gop party.  there are nearly a million arrests a year for possession of pot to protect the profits of the pharmasuedical, liquer and tobacco industries, and all other ‘crimes’ receive the same gross punishment for minor infractions.  Threatening to steal from the rich countervenes the rich stealing from the population, and must be punished.  And so it is, at home and abroad.  The War on Crime and the War on Drugs initiated the War on Terroism, and the torture and murder that accompanies it.

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By scared, April 24, 2009 at 8:41 am Link to this comment

We’re badly in need of criminal justice reform.  Jim Webb has certainly said some encouraging things ont he topic.

I’d like to read more about the historical perspective this book appears to offer.

I read Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear by Johnathan Simon last year on the same kinds of topics.  Was good.

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By Virginia777, April 24, 2009 at 8:40 am Link to this comment

I blame the Media for dehumanizing (and finger-pointing at) “criminals”,

for vastly over-reporting “gang violence” and crime in general, while almost never presenting the other side (the roots of crime, social factors) in their crime reporting (as a journalist is supposed to).

This is happening in almost every media source in the country!

Sure it would be nice if Americans took what they read in the papers with a grain of salt, but they do not.

They allow the media to let them feel only fear,  vengeance and hatred toward the issue of crime and criminals, creating a barrier which sympathy does not pass through.

And yes, ready to vote in the latest “tough on crime” legislation or politician who promises to do so.

Ready to tolerate inhuman, barbaric conditions in prisons.

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By WILLIAM J CLEMONS, April 24, 2009 at 7:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Is there no one who - in addition to the number of imprisonments nationally - who has examined the number of attorneys—a striking increase since even 15 years ago.

Then, the question - why are there so many more today than in 1994.  And, in addition to there being many more——consider that a lot of attorneys in 1994 or earlier were not in the earnings bracket that the percentage of attorneys are in today.  Recognition that some attorneys could hardly make enough money to live on versus today’s escalated living standards.

So if the above is considered, then you must consider that “new laws must be passed to create the need for legal advice”——and then look at the increase in the laws then and now.  Also, some illegal issues today were not illegal issues then.

Much thought has been given recently to decreasing the format of prosecution of certain actions that have been considered illegal but the truth remains that which is more “life threatening” to the consumer and the public——[1] having possession of marihuana - or even smoking it vs [2] consuming alcohol until the brain is not functioning properly.

More consideration should be allowed toward rehabilitation or just plain helping people with their problems.  Many people are incarcerated only because they performed A SINGULAR ACT that the legal framework could immediately call illegal—-perhaps they had never been involved before—-but because of a causation in their life they consumed or had possession of what is called a drug but is not as harmful as that which caused the drunk driver to drive - because of the effect on their brain—had an accident that impaired permanently one or two or more people. 

william j clemons
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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