A shocking look at American Prisons

A review of ‘Inferno: An Anatomy of Punishment’ by Robert A. Ferguson



By Robert A. Ferguson

The measurements of the American mania for incarceration are both staggering and, apparently, meaningless. With five per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 per cent of its prisoners, 100,000 of them in mind- and soul-destroying solitary. Over the last 30 years, the average time served has doubled, to the extent there are now 140,000 people with life sentences, many for non-violent crimes. One in nine of the 50 states’ employees is a penitentiary guard. Privately owned prisons—which the author considers an obscenity “in a free republic”—flourish. In Louisiana, where most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs, the state economy seems based on them: One in 86 Louisiana adults is in prison, a rate of incarceration seven times that of China.

And life inside these overcrowded and ungovernable institutions is indeed a secular hell. Inmates are wide open to abuse—physical, sexual, mental—from other inmates and guards alike; no one really notices, no one is really punished, and no one cares.

The proximate causes, as delineated by Ferguson, are multiple and mutually reinforcing. Louisiana sheriffs are not the only people with a vested economic interest in more and more inmates; powerful guards’ unions also require human material to guard. “Hang ’em high” rhetoric doesn’t necessarily send a candidate to Congress, but failure to join the chorus usually means electoral defeat. Prosecutors have now amassed great power in the U.S. legal system, to the extent that 97 per cent of federal cases and 94 per cent of state ones are decided by guilty pleas.

American courts, like the American public, generally think the job is done once sentence is passed: 18-year-old drug dealers are not formally sentenced to be gang-raped, so the state is not formally accountable for creating the situation that makes it probable. Above all, the same humanitarian impulse that moved punishment—the hangings and floggings our ancestors flocked to witness—out of the public eye also effectively severed the connection between social approval and punitive action. Prisoners, and what happens to them, are out of sight. But not entirely out of mind: We can avoid looking directly at inmates while still making prison rape jokes.

But the heart of this superb book is a search for the deeper reasons, for the roots of the American impulse to punish, and punish severely. Ferguson, a professor of law and literature at Columbia University, maintains a tone that is remarkably, not accusatory or political, as he roams through Dante and Melville, Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli looking for clues, for the punished are generally silent (or silenced) and there are no experts on punishment “whom you would like to meet.” The current, self-defeating situation—where the $80-billion-a-year U.S. prison system does nothing so well as it trains and brutalizes future violent offenders—has been a generation in the making, and will probably take as long to wind down. But that process can’t even begin until Americans start talking about why they do what they do.


Filed under:

Sign in to comment.