May 24, 2013
Eve Pell on America’s Culture of Punishment
Posted on Apr 24, 2009
By Eve Pell
But, perhaps because the ebb and flow of ideas is itself untidy and irregular, in some chapters the book skips and hops unevenly from one thing to another. Cusac quotes Source 1 saying A, Source 2 saying B, Source 3 saying something else. I wanted a firmer hand on the tiller in such places. A chapter that aims to show how the urge to punish surged in the 1970s cites Time and Newsweek on the wickedness of Generation Xers; gives blow-by-blow accounts of the plots of “Rosemary’s Baby, “The Exorcist” and “Carrie,” movies that portray a powerful devil; and describes the conservative backlash against the liberal movements of the ’60s like feminism and gay liberation. With “evil” alive and abroad in the land, societal problems are blamed not on racism or poverty, but rather on bad individuals and drug “fiends,” an underclass whose personal vices lead to crime. This climate of opinion provides fodder for neoconservatives to justify longer sentences, harsher prison conditions and larger expenditures for new prisons. It may be that Cusac’s pop history is on the money, but it seemed a little glib and I wasn’t quite convinced.
But there is no discounting the lasting influence of the vengeful Protestant ethos. This attitude lives on, epitomized by the little-known Christian Reconstructionist movement, which advocates a theocracy in which sins like blasphemy merit death by stoning or burning alive. Cusac links this movement to Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who has said that he favors the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions.
My criticisms of her work are relatively minor: In writing about the short-lived movement for prison reform of the early 1970s, Cusac misstates the title of Jessica Mitford’s exposé of prisons, calling it “Kind and Unusual Punishment.” The correct title is “Kind and Usual Punishment,” Mitford’s ironic take on the corrections industry and its failings. More generally, when Cusac relies on selections from many diverse sources, the resulting argument feels a bit mushy. By contrast, where she relies on her own years of reporting, the book takes on real power. Her linkage of the abuses of Abu Ghraib to American correctional practices is a case in point—the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, even threatening inmates with dogs, had happened in American prisons. “George Bush said he was exporting democracy to Iraq,” she writes, “but he seems to have exported a much uglier aspect of American public policy—some of the most sadistic practices employed in the U.S. prison system.”
Her chronicling of severe injury and death to inmates from new technology shocks the conscience—stun belts, tasers, restraint chairs, supermax isolation … she cites names and circumstances of outrage after outrage. Back in the 1970s, when I was a newbie reporter writing about brutality behind bars, I thought that if the public only knew that terrible cruelty was taking place, there would be an outcry and corrections officials would have to change their ways. I don’t think that anymore. There is no powerful constituency, no high-paid K Street lobby, no fat source of campaign funding from those who want to reform our prisons. And though Cusac says her book demonstrates the hazards of ignoring the current situation, it is difficult for me to see how it will help to bring about much-needed change. People don’t care enough about the thousands of inmates in solitary slowly going insane, week in and week out. In fact, a politician who is seen as being soft on criminals stands to lose big—remember Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton?
But I am encouraged by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who recently spoke out against our useless, expensive and counterproductive incarceration establishment. As he says, it is a system of “chaos and mismanagement” that wastes billions of dollars as it creates “violence, physical abuse and hate.” Anne-Marie Cusac’s book helps to explain how we got to this awful pass.
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