An Anatomy of American Punishment

Book - 2014
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Harvard University Press

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.

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.

Book News
Numerous works have exposed in great detail the extraordinary harshness of the American penal system, yet there has been little response in policy circles. Rather than retread that previously covered ground, this book seeks to expose the reasons criminal punishment is so extreme in the United States, partly in relation to literary works such as Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Victor Hugo's The Last Day of a Condemned Man, James Gould Cozen's The Just and The Unjust, and Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast. The author first discusses the intellectual parameters of American punishment: the "veiled pleasures" in the impulse to punish, the role of severity in rival theories of criminal punishment, and the nature of suffering as an element of punishment. He then turns to the institutional and sociological elements driving the harsh system of incarceration in the United States. He concludes by calling for a new understanding of punishment that can lay the groundwork for prison reform. Annotation ©2014 Ringgold, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2014
ISBN: 9780674728684
Branch Call Number: 364.601 FER
Characteristics: xi, 337 p. ;,25 cm.


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patienceandfortitude Jun 16, 2014

A difficult book about a complex subject, but very worthwhile. Offers a complete picture of the current injustice in the American prison system, along with some ideas on how things might be made better.

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