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Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishmentby Robert A. Ferguson
Synopses & Reviews
America's criminal justice system is broken. The United States punishes at a higher per capita rate than any other country in the world. In the last twenty years, incarceration rates have risen 500 percent. Sentences are harsh, prisons are overcrowded, life inside is dangerous, and rehabilitation programs are ineffective. Police and prosecutors operate in the dark shadows of the legal process--sometimes resigning themselves to the status quo, sometimes turning a profit from it. The courts define punishment as "time served," but that hardly begins to explain the suffering of prisoners.
Looking not only to court records but to works of philosophy, history, and literature for illumination, Robert Ferguson, a distinguished law professor, diagnoses all parts of a now massive, out-of-control punishment regime. He reveals the veiled pleasure behind the impulse to punish (which confuses our thinking about the purpose of punishment), explains why over time all punishment regimes impose greater levels of punishment than originally intended, and traces a disturbing gap between our ability to quantify pain and the precision with which penalties are handed down.
Ferguson turns the spotlight from the debate over legal issues to the real plight of prisoners, addressing not law professionals but the American people. Do we want our prisons to be this way? Or are we unaware, or confused, or indifferent, or misinformed about what is happening? Acknowledging the suffering of prisoners and understanding what punishers do when they punish are the first steps toward a better, more just system.
"Columbia Univ. professor Ferguson succeeds in his aim of provoking thought in this broad assault on the American approach to punishing crime. He limns the scope of the problem by using some shocking comparative statistics, such as the fact that 'America has less than 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners,' or that Congress 'averages more than fifty-six new federal crimes a year.' Ferguson also manages to make the reader identify with the incarcerated, no mean feat in a society where many are more likely to view themselves as a potential victim of crime than a potential inmate; he does so with an opening paragraph depicting the violence and despair at the heart of the day-to-day experience of most prisoners. The need for punishment is not in question, rather it is the severity, and Ferguson time and again forces the reader to look deeper at an issue to which most people are oblivious. And even the reason for that attitude bears consideration — the shift away from punishment as a 'public spectacle' effectively rendered those punished invisible. Ferguson occasionally lapses into dense prose, but for the most part he makes a heavy, complex, and contentious subject accessible to the layperson. (Mar.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Robert Ferguson diagnoses all parts of a massive, out-of-control punishment regime. Turning the spotlight on the plight of prisoners, he asks the American people, Do we want our prisons to be this way? Acknowledging the suffering of prisoners and understanding what punishers do when they punish are the first steps toward a better, more just system.
It has long been held that humans need government to impose social order on a chaotic, dangerous world. How, then, did early humans survive on the Serengeti Plain, surrounded by faster, stronger, and bigger predators in a harsh and forbidding environment? Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers examines an array of natural experiments and accidents of human history to explore the fundamental nature of how human beings act when beyond the scope of the law. Pirates of the 1700s, the leper colony on Molokai Island, prisoners of the Nazis, hippie communes of the 1970s, shipwreck and plane crash survivors, and many more diverse groupsand#8212;they all existed in the absence of formal rules, punishments, and hierarchies. Paul and Sarahand#160;Robinson draw on these real-life stories to suggest that humans are predisposed to be cooperative, within limits.and#160;
What these and#8220;communitiesand#8221; did and how they managed have dramatic implications for shaping our modern institutions. Should todayand#8217;s criminal justice system build on peopleand#8217;s shared intuitions about justice? Or are we better off acknowledging this aspect of human nature but using law to temper it? Knowing the true nature of our human character and our innate ideas about justice offers a roadmap to a better society.
About the Author
Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University.
What Our Readers Are Saying
History and Social Science » Crime » Prisons and Prisoners