Good books to read Part V

It’s been a while since we’ve done a book review post. Read earlier posts here:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment — Robert Ferguson

Why do Americans tolerate the current punishment regime in the United States? This overarching question guides this book by blending in historical, philosophical, and legal answers. Ferguson makes the central argument that most Americans fail to grasp the reality of prison life, which allows punishment to be increased with little regard for human consequences. The compartmentalized nature of criminal justice institutions leads to a diffusion of responsibility and an escalation of pain in punishment. The omnipresent metaphor of Dante’s Inferno provides an opportunity to pivot from current practices that condemn souls to hell to a purgatory based system that punishes with an eye towards future redemption. Folks with a side passion for literature will really enjoy this book, as Ferguson references Dostoevsky, Kafka, Dante, and Hugo repeatedly. This creative book offers a refreshing take on the usual cut and dry positions articulated in the prison literature landscape.

The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class — John Irwin

John Irwin is the GOAT of prison sociology literature. In this work from 2004, Irwin traces the historical development of prisons while drawing parallels to the contemporary carceral archipelago. Societies have evolved from the corporal punishment era of inflicting wanton pain and suffering for trivial offenses, but the new prison regime is similarly situated in it’s neglect for human rights. Irwin asks fundamental questions about how we should think about prisons in today’s day and age. Are they serving a noble purpose in protecting the general welfare of society by confining dangerous criminals? Or, just perhaps, is there a more sinister motive at play? The same demographic groups are targeted by prisons today that were at the inception of State sanctioned punitive practices — mostly poor, people of color. Irwin’s writing style is accessible and easy to digest, a testament to his lasting legacy on prison reform scholarship.

Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor — Angela J. Davis

Prosecutors are the prime culprits for this era of hyper incarceration. If we can ever hope to emerge on the other side of this punitive tidal wave, we need to understand the nuances of prosecutorial behavior. Success for prosecutors is measured in convictions, but often this runs antithetical to a mission of serving justice. Davis, a former public defender in D.C. for a dozen years, takes readers behind the scenes and reveals an inherently problematic legal landscape. Prosecutors hold all the cards in charging decisions and plea bargaining, and Davis demonstrates how even well-intentioned prosecutors can perpetuate injustices. But for all the damaging aspects of prosecutorial misconduct Davis highlights, it’s equally informative about simple avenues for reform. A slender book written by a lawyer in lawyer language, it’s nonetheless vital reading for those interested in tangible prosecutorial reform efforts.

The Modern Prison Paradox — Amy E. Lerman

Professor Lerman sets out to help readers understand the many layers of this punitive moment in history. Crime control policies of the past half-century have given rise to institutions that recreate the conditions that produce criminality in the first place. Increasingly harsh prison conditions foster social norms necessary for survival inside, but damaging for reintegration once on the outside. Further, Lerman sets out to measure the impact of harsher prisons on correctional staff and their evolving relationships with incarcerated subjects, plus family and friends outside of the prison. This book reinforces the notion that time spent in prison is not some type of deep freeze during which individuals remain unchanged. Rather, we should see prisons as small communities unto themselves. An excellent read for folks interested in a deep dive into how the other half lives.

Unrelated to the book — Lerman spent time tutoring at San Quentin State Prison in the same program as this blogger.

In the Mix: Struggle and Survival in a Women’s Prison — Barbara Owen

Professor Owen spent three years conducting ethnographic research at the largest woman’s prison in the world: CCWF – Central CA Women’s facility in Chowchilla. Published in the mid 90’s, Owen takes readers inside the culture of a women’s prison by letting the women inside share their narratives. The culture of women’s prisons is markedly different from the degradation, violence, and predatory structure of male prison life. In some ways, the culture of the female prison seeks to accommodate these struggles rather than to exploit them. The study of women in prison must be viewed through the lens of patriarchy and its implications for the everyday lives of women. Unlike male prisons in CA, female prisons are not racially segregated and racial identity places a less animating role in relationships. The strengths of this book are the moving anecdotes shared by the women. Some examples:

  • ‘See, when you come in here, you deal with exactly who you are. You become who you really are and you deal with feelings that you have not had to deal with in years. All this is coming out. I was not pretty when I was out there. I think I am pretty now and you feel good about yourself’.
  • ‘Yeah, I consider myself just playin’ the hand that I was dealt. And in life, no one asks for the hand that they’re given. Now that I’m older, I can change it or stay with the situation or complain about my present situation, or whatever, but you know I don’t choose to do that, I choose to say, hey, okay, yeah, and so now it’s time for me to take some responsibility. It is up to me’.
  • ‘Here you can become you. And you can get what is inside really out. And sometimes that is not really pretty. And for some people that can be very scary. You have to learn to be honest with yourself here. You can’t hide behind a bunch of lies like maybe you did on the streets. It is the hardest thing in here and it is the step that hurts everybody the most. You have to realize what you have done to people and the things you have done wrong’.

In Search of Safety: Confronting Inequality in Women’s imprisonment — Barbara Owen

Owen’s specialized knowledge of women’s imprisonment is put on full display in this recent book. The mobilizing factor in women’s imprisonment is capital, and a crucial lack thereof. But a lack of capital doesn’t just confine women’s lives on the outside, it haunts them even while incarcerated in complex ways. Certain sections of this book directly call out Orange is the New Black which promoted mainstream attention to the plight of incarcerated women, but relied on lazy stereotypes. The conclusion is especially salient as it attempts to implement the Mandela Rules for humane prison conditions. A powerful read that builds on the narrative forged by In the Mix. 

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