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The Punishment We Deserve

How did the American penal system become abusive?

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"Capital punishments are the natural offspring of monarchical governments," Benjamin Rush wrote in 1792. Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the father of American psychiatry, an abolitionist, and a prison reformer, and he's one of the minor heroes of Anne-Marie Cusac's Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America. Cusac, an assistant professor of communication at Roosevelt University, singles him out as representative of a stream of reformist thought common among the Founding Fathers and their peers. For Rush, opposition to cruel punishment was based on both Christian faith and patriotism. He saw American republicanism as uniquely free, uniquely Christian, and therefore uniquely humane.

As Cusac points out, things haven't worked out quite as Rush hoped. America is far from the forefront of prison reform. We still practice capital punishment, and our rates of incarceration are by far the highest among Western nations. Moreover, since Abu Ghraib we've become notorious not for humaneness but for torture.

How exactly did this happen?

Cusac's book suggests a couple of answers. In the first place, she notes, the reform movement didn't necessarily lead to humanitarian improvements. On the contrary, the effort to promote humane rehabilitation often resulted in the replacement of one form of torture with another. One of the most popular "reform" punishments, for example, was solitary confinement. In lieu of branding or whipping, the state would enforce isolation and silence, so that wrongdoers would have time and space to pray and contemplate their sins.

But solitary confinement in practice doesn't rehabilitate prisoners: it drives them insane. Cusac doesn't connect the dots explicitly, but it's fairly clear that the cruel use of isolation in supermax prisons today can be seen not as a refutation of the reformist vision but as an ironic fulfillment of it.

Still, the reformers can't be blamed for everything. Once the cruelty of solitary confinement became clear in the early 20th century, America, like much of Europe, abandoned the practice. For that matter, until relatively recently, the U.S. imprisonment rate was in line with imprisonment rates in Europe. It was only in the 1980s and '90s that incarceration rates skyrocketed and solitary came back into vogue.

Cusac traces the resurgence of harsher measures to cultural shifts that started in the 70s. During that decade, she writes, Americans reacted against the culture wars of the 60s and the loss of the Vietnam War by becoming more pessimistic about the future and about human nature. Conservative religiosity enjoyed a revival. Movies like The Exorcist assumed the reality of evil. At the same time, prison reformers and researchers began to argue (often based on erroneous research, according to Cusac) that rehabilitation programs weren't working. The reformers hoped, with charmingly utopian naivete, that once rehabilitation was discredited fewer people would be imprisoned. Instead, portraying lawbreakers as permanently corrupt led politicians and citizens to call for longer, harsher prison sentences.

It's difficult to establish cause and effect for cultural phenomena like this. For instance, Cusac notes that until the 1970s local TV news broadcasts didn't spend much time discussing crime. Then, all of a sudden, management realized they could make a mint by promoting the latest murder or rape. So . . . did local TV news increase people's fear of crime? Or did increased fear of crime make reporting on it more lucrative? Cusac seems to lean toward the first explanation, but the second—or some sort of mutually reinforcing feedback loop—seems just as likely. Cusac can show that attitudes towards punishment changed, and she can point to a spectrum of phenomena linked to that change, but she can't establish, say, whether increased pessimism provoked the religious revival, or whether the religious revival primarily fed, or fed on, movies like The Exorcist.

Cusac ends up going with an amorphous bottom-up model: culture changed for a bunch of interrelated reasons, and therefore the political and legal realities of punishment changed. People came to feel that prisoners were evil and needed to suffer, and therefore long prison sentences and even torture—Cusac discusses multiple instances of prisoners dying after being placed in restraint chairs, for example—became normalized in U.S. prisons. The most chilling paragraph in Cruel and Unusual is the one in which Cusac explains how thoroughly acts she witnessed in U.S. jails prepared her for the Abu Ghraib revelations. "When I first saw the photo, taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, of a hooded and robed figure strung with electrical wiring," she says, "I thought of the Sacramento, California, city jail."

Cusac's argument that Abu Ghraib was merely an extension of the U.S. prison system is depressingly persuasive. She points out that several of the people involved in the torture were former corrections personnel who'd also been implicated in incidents of prison abuse. At the same time, though, Abu Ghraib suggests the limitations of her bottom-up perspective. The abuses there occurred in a climate in which the Bush administration was actively advocating torture techniques. If Al Gore had won a handful more votes, or Dick Cheney had suffered a debilitating heart attack before becoming vice president, it seems likely that Abu Ghraib wouldn't have happened. (Not that the solution to prison abuse is necessarily more liberals in power—Cusac argues that Democratic antidrug crusaders like Jesse Jackson are plenty culpable for our current mess.)

Obviously, the Bush administration officials' personal attitudes towards torture and the death penalty were influenced by the rise of religious conservatism in society at large. But influence flowed the other way, as well. Focused on culture at the grassroots level, Cusac underestimates the extent to which politics at the top have affected the debate. Would we have the prison system we do if Republicans—and, for that matter, many Democrats—hadn't decided to use crime as a wedge issue for so many years? Would so many conservatives have so eagerly defended torture if the Bush administration hadn't made that the default Republican position?

America's fascination with control, punishment, and force is partially a reflection of our leaders' fascinations. It hardly seems surprising that the more we act as the world's policeman, the more we behave internally like a police state. For Benjamin Rush, remember, it was monarchical government that led to capital punishments, not the other way around. If we want a less punitive culture, the simplest way to get it might be to put less punitive people in power. Let's hope we already have.   

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