Inside story: the scandal that is America’s prison system

America’s prisons are violent places full of predators, some of them in uniform – and the public, for whose nominal protection these terrible institutions exist, remain blissfully ignorant. A new book just might shake them out of their complacency.
An inmate in California, where the US Supreme Court has said that prison health care is so bad it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Sam Hodgson / Bloomberg
An inmate in California, where the US Supreme Court has said that prison health care is so bad it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Sam Hodgson / Bloomberg

“While society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1833 in his On the Penitentiary System in the United States, “the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism.”

That despotism appalled de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago, and as Columbia professor Robert Ferguson makes clear in his powerful, excoriating new book Inferno, it’s almost incalculably worsened with time. Ferguson chose his title carefully: the system he describes is indistinguishable in its violence, depravity and apparent senselessness from the multilayered underworld described by Dante in the 14th century.

Imprisonment rates in the United States are greater than they’ve ever been in the nation’s history. The country spends more than US$80 billion (Dh294bn) a year on its penal system and the system encourages recidivism, which has risen to nearly 70 per cent. The incarceration rate in Europe is 1 out of 1,000, but the United States imprisons 1 out of 143 of its citizens, and for longer periods under far worse conditions. An astonishing 2.26 million people were being held in US prisons as of 2010; the country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and its prison system holds sway – directly or less directly – over 1 out of every 37 Americans. These and other numbers stagger the imagination; they virtually constitute a 51st state of the union, one composed of anger and dread, spread across the continent and yet all but invisible to the other 50 states.

Ferguson writes that the ultimate task of his book is to “identify a prison system that has become an evil for all concerned” and the bulk of his book lays out enormous amounts of research, scholarship, philosophy and even literary analysis towards that end. He has scalpel-sharp questions to ask about the waste and savagery of the American penal system, one of the foremost being why Americans are so harsh in their punishments.

With bitter clarity, he suggests that the answer is simple, brutal ignorance: “Even educated Americans do not know what they are doing when they want to punish, but they nonetheless hold passionate views about it.” (For instance, 69 per cent of Americans favour the death penalty.) Americans are addicted to law-and-order TV shows and movies in which the prison system is variously portrayed as a hardener of bad people and a horror chamber for the innocent – and to what ultimate end? Is the goal of incarceration to deter crime? To rehabilitate the criminal? To provide satisfaction for the victims? To remove dangerous elements from society? Or simple retribution, “the default answer in a punitive system”?

That punitive system is described throughout Inferno in remorseless detail. Ferguson navigates the thicket of legal decisions throughout American history and brings his story down to the second half of the 20th century, when the voter value of a “tough on crime” stance prompted an entire generation of lawmakers and politicians to implement draconian standards of conviction and sentencing.

Alongside this increase in penal severity came an increase in efforts to hide its results from the general populace: “By keeping those in prison securely hidden from public view and by making sure that the criminals who perform serious crimes never reappear,” Ferguson writes, “society confirms that it does not want to think about whatever suffering takes place behind jailhouse walls even if it knows that humiliation, discomfort, crime and physical abuse are prevalent there.”

The hardest reading in Ferguson’s book are the chapters dealing specifically with that humiliation, discomfort, crime and physical abuse inside prisons. Again, the sheer statistics he cites are appalling. Inmates are presided over by guards who are often petty or tyrannical, and those guards themselves are under enormous stress. “Nowhere are the insidious dynamics of punishment more in evidence,” Ferguson sensitively notes, than in the role of the prison guard, where “your job is to enforce suffocating restrictions on people who were once free and know what freedom meant”.

And beyond guard-on-inmate violence, there’s the teeming nightmare of inmate-on-inmate violence. Rape is endemic; murders are commonplace; drug trafficking is a thriving black market; gang coercion extends far outside prison walls. Prisons are crushingly overcrowded and therefore as unsanitary as a medieval London slum – widespread diseases completely overwhelm sketchy and underfunded prison medical facilities.

The system is a yawning maw; it gnashes ferociously at every person who enters it, guilty or innocent. If an American enters the penal system, regardless of how minor or severe their crime is (and leaving aside the substantial chance that they’re innocent), they face two sentences: the official one inflicting confinement for some period of time, and the unofficial one inflicting infection, beating, torture, branding, rape and even murder – and Ferguson is right: all of it happens comfortably out of sight and out of mind.

The Americans who’ve sent their fellow citizens to this hell think in vague, contented terms; offenders “pay their debt” – the outside world is protected from them until they’re rehabilitated to rejoin ­society. “Rehabilitation sounds great to the hopeful corrector,” Ferguson points out, “the person corrected hears more imposition of the system.” Likewise with the idea of society being protected: “Protection is what every inmate sacrifices on entering the predatory zone of American prisons.”

Ferguson traces societal conceptions of incarceration and punishment from their modern embryos in the Enlightenment, but he notes that the desire to punish exists throughout the chronology. “In every theory,” he writes, “there is some mechanism to justify further severity. The possibility of more punishment always exists, and its logical increase over time presages the deterioration in all punishment regimes.” Those increases in punishment are animated by an amorphous but very strong communal fear: you have things of value, the world is full of people who don’t have as many things of value as they’d like – they want yours and you know they do. The American political system is cynically geared to prey on that fear and a multibillion-dollar industry sustains itself in order to facilitate it – an industry Ferguson doesn’t hesitate to call evil.

“Whose crisis is it when a prison system is in crisis?” Ferguson asks, and the central argument of his book is that it’s a crisis of the entire American people, a spreading blot on the nation’s embattled moral character.

The deformation of legal punishment into this dark chaos of misery and sadism strikes far too many Americans as unconnected to their lives, but Ferguson’s book, with its many stories of trivial ­offences drawing rigorous sentences, makes it clear that the US penal system claims the negligent and the unlucky as well as the guilty. Long before the final chapters of this book, any slight shred of hope has been annihilated; the deterioration Ferguson describes seems clearly entrenched and out of control.

But he hopes nonetheless. He calls for a shift in understanding that must challenge “the ingrained habits that allow American punishment to proceed so ruthlessly and yet comfortably by claiming a normalcy based on necessity, fatalism and habit”.

He cites various pilot programmes designed to rethink incarceration from the ground up; he urges greater public awareness and legislative reform; and he’s undaunted by the possible expense of such things. “In 2013,” he points out with carefully controlled anger, “eight single managers of hedge funds in the United States made a combined annual salary of $9 billion. By themselves, these financial overlords were paid 13 per cent of the budget spent on prisons in the United States in the same year. Believe it. The money is out there.”

Even in de Tocqueville’s day, that money was notably indifferent to the problem of prison reform, ­regardless of how the status quo reflects on the country.

Nelson Mandela, who had some expertise in the matter, often commented that you can’t really know a nation until you know its prisons – and if this is right, ­Ferguson’s book is the most damning portrait of the United States since Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” nearly 300 years ago. In 2014, American sinners are thrown into an inferno of such stark and ­capricious viciousness that, as our knowing guide points out, it defiles everyone connected with it. If this stunning book can’t start a reassessment of that inferno, nothing can.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Published: May 1, 2014 04:00 AM


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