American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, by Sasha Abramsky
American Furies is a good and relatively concise overview of the injustices of the U.S. penal system. With over two million people behind bars, and more millions on probation or parole, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet. Spurred by the rise and dominance of a conservative tough-on-crime political stance that has turned crime into an increasingly sensationalized topic since the ’70’s, the prison industry has grown exponentially, encouraging new supermax facilities, high tech control and surveillance devices (the same kinds used in war and overseas facilities), and rapid privatization.
Abramsky starts by providing background information about the evolution of the western European/U.S. prison system and the philosophy and psychology of state punishment, from Foucault to Milgram. He notes the ways in which popular perception of the very point of punishment and imprisonment has changed. State punishment was once enacted in public; the lawbreaker tortured, made into spectacle, example, entertainment. With the advent of modern psychology, prisoners were hidden away, out of sight of the public, and the site of infliction changed from body to mind. For a while, prisons were considered rehabilitation centers of sorts.
And now? The “tough on crime” movement, fed largely by fundamentalism, racism, and conservative politics has made prisons into sites of revenge, framing criminality as moral failure. The goal of rehabilitation has been completely dropped, almost everywhere. The prison system is a booming industry, fueled by popular demand, and in recent decades policymakers have been pressured to keep this demand satiated. They’ve done this by writing new, harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, adopting a “throw away the key” approach to habitual offenders, trying more and more children as adults, moving away from offering parole, and largely allowing healthcare services for the mentally ill to disintegrate*.
These policies do not actually do anything to ensure the speedy lock-up of our nation’s boogeymen: the rapists, the serial murderers, the school shooters. More and more people are serving longer sentences for nonviolent crimes like drugs, petty theft, and fraud–some spending a longer time in jail for these crimes than did Nazi war criminals sentenced at Nuremburg. And, of course, those disproportionately at risk due to stricter prison law and sentencing are those that are already our country’s most downtrodden: people who are poor, who are uneducated, who are non-white (particularly black and latino), who are addicts, who are ill, who have fewer options. Historical trends show that the more unequal society becomes, the more is invested in its prisons, the better to hide away the underclass. And once they’re hidden away, we aim to keep them there. Very few prisons offer rehabilitation or education programs of any kind, almost promising that prisoners will return. For the cruel and unusual treatment they receive behind bars leaves them little preparation for anything but more crime, and more violence. The prison has become a revolving door.
Prisoners face regular brutality from fellow prisoners and from guards: rape, beatings, isolation…the works. In this culture of criminalization and devaluation of the underclass, it’s really no wonder. As Abramsky says, this isn’t just the case of “a few bad apples”, it’s the logical extension of the dehumanization of prisoners and the growing impunity allowed guards and other prison officials.
All this may sound old hat, and if you know anything about the U.S. prison system already, it very well might be. But it’s still important, and it’s still a problem. One thing Abramsky does emphasize that I didn’t know much about is the victim’s rights movement, which has been startlingly effective at organizing and influencing judiciary policy. The way that they have assumed an identity as victims of violent crime is really interesting to me as a subject of its own. As I wrote at the beginning, this book is a useful overview of the issues. If you don’t need the overview, skip it. But if you’d like even a refresher, the read will be worth it.
*I’m honestly not sure if “mentally ill” is the most sensitive term to use anymore, does anyone reading know? Yes, I am trying to be PC about this. Wouldn’t want to hurt anyone unnecessarily through my own ignorance, and having a surprising amount of trouble locating the information I’m looking for cruising Disability 101 type blogs.