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Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in Americaby Anne-Marie Cusac
"The United States was not always so locked down. For most of the twentieth century its incarceration rate hovered near one-tenth of one percent, roughly the same as in other industrial free societies. Then, from the early 1970s forward, the federal and state governments began extending sentences, curtailing judicial discretion and restricting early releases. The prison population soared. By the end of George W. Bush's presidency, approximately one out of every 100 adults was in jail or prison, a proportion unmatched in the history of democracy." Robert Perkinson, The Nation (read the entire Nation review)
Synopses & Reviews
The statistics are startling. Since 1973, Americas imprisonment rate has multiplied over five times to become the highest in the world. More than two million inmates reside in state and federal prisons. What does this say about our attitudes toward criminals and punishment? What does it say about us?
This book explores the cultural evolution of punishment practices in the United States. Anne-Marie Cusac first looks at punishment in the nations early days, when Americans repudiated Old World cruelty toward criminals and emphasized rehabilitation over retribution. This attitude persisted for some 200 years, but in recent decades we have abandoned it, Cusac shows. She discusses the dramatic rise in the use of torture and restraint, corporal and capital punishment, and punitive physical pain. And she links this new climate of punishment to shifts in other aspects of American culture, including changes in dominant religious beliefs, child-rearing practices, politics, television shows, movies, and more.
America now punishes harder and longer and with methods we would have rejected as cruel and unusual not long ago. These changes are profound, their impact affects all our lives, and we have yet to understand the full consequences.
"The Abu Ghraib prison abuses, widely condemned as violations of American ideals, were actually as American as apple pie, according to this scattershot study. Cusac, a journalist and communications professor , surveys the American enthusiasm for confinement, pain and humiliation as instruments of legal and social control, from colonial-era stocks and ducking pools to today's supermax prisons and amped-up stun guns (she includes a litany of cases of kids and old ladies tasered by cops). Abandoning a mid — 20th-century consensus favoring humane rehabilitation for miscreants, Americans since the 1970s have embraced a view of crime as the product of individual evil, she contends, with harsh retribution the appropriate response. For this view she blames religion — specifically the Christian Right, citing everything from spanking manuals to the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which recommends the death penalty for theft and homosexuality. Cusac's disorganized, repetitive argument treats developments in policing and penology as atavistic cultural phenomena largely unrelated to concrete social concerns; she spends far more time analyzing movies like The Exorcist and Carrie than discussing postwar crime rates. The result is a sometimes insightful but often unbalanced and distorted take on our supposed gluttony for punishment." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"This book is a bracing indictment of our cultures obsession with pain and revenge. In chronicling the history and current reality of punishment in America, Anne-Marie Cusac exposes our collective loss of compassion to damning effect." Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States
"Cusac illuminates the causal connections between culture and punishment, and her comparison of corporal punishment in the colonial era with contemporary practice yields powerful insights." Amy Dru Stanley, University of Chicago
"Cusacs analysis should provoke a sense of deep concern: concern that contemporary punitiveness in America will damage our institutions, our political system, our culture." Austin Sarat, Amherst College
"Anne-Marie Cusac was there first, years ago, as a journalist tracking Americas growing addiction to punishment and pain. Now she describes how that obsession with brutality threatens our very ideals as a people, how the bearer of cruelty may be a victim of it as surely as its target. Hers is a book as illuminating as it is terrifying." William F. Schulz, former Executive Director, Amnesty International USA
About the Author
Anne-Marie Cusac is assistant professor, Department of Communication, Roosevelt University, and a contributing writer to The Progressive. For her work as a journalist she has received the George Polk Award and on three occasions the Project Censored Award. She lives in Evanston, IL.
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