Now is an advantageous time for the publication of Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (Yale University Press). As a country, we are once again at a crossroads with regard to our attitude toward punishment. But as author Anne-Marie Cusac shows, the nation has long flip-flopped on this issue.
Cusac, a former staff writer at The Progressive, builds on her reports over the years for that magazine to give a wide-angle view of imprisonment and punishment in the U.S. It's been an issue ever since Puritan times; Cusac sees a culture fascinated by crime and punishment, pain and retribution. A major conflict is whether the wrong-doer is downright evil, in a religious or even a psychological sense, or whether he or she is capable of being rehabilitated. More often, Cusac argues, the feeling has been that evil is evil and needs punishment.
"This understanding of the criminal personality as irredeemable leads us to punish harder and punish longer," she writes in the introduction. "Use of punishment tools...are seeping into segments of America life -- elementary schools, hospitals -- that we would not ordinarily think of as criminal turf."
The American fascination with punishment stems at least as far back as the Puritan days of the "ducking stool," sort of an outdoor version of waterboarding in a chair, used on women with "foul tongues" or those who scolded or lied. Early punishments like this are often connected to statements in the Bible.
Thomas Jefferson sought a bettering of conditions with regard to punishment in this country, but fifty years after the founding of the U.S., the Eastern States Penitentiary in Philadelphia was using gags, water punishments and flogging. Some prisoners starved to death.
Cusac returns to primary-source documents to detail what the norms for punishment were over the years, in prisons, but also throughout the rest of society, in schools, on shipboard, in the military, in slavery. School punishment was particularly harsh. Schools regularly punished for many activities as innocent as blotting a copybook, students "calling each other liars," or for playing near the mill or creek. Far from being a country that does not torture, it seems that we are a country that has often preferred harsh punishment.
Progressive reforms (in the last decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th) looked to science to find guidance on the issue of criminality and punishment. Progressives brought about many aspects of legal punishment that we recognize today: probation, parole, separating juveniles from adult offenders. Sunshine, fresh air and farm work could rehabilitate a wrong-doer. But these programs were also often underfunded, and hence sometimes superficial.
Some of the most interesting chapters are later in the book, where Cusac analyzes the social upheaval of the 1960s, which lead, conversely, into fascination with crime, evil, even the devil in popular culture. Fear of anarchy and evil are strong today; pop culture dwells on sensational murders like Charles Manson. Even television crime shows have stopped focusing on other crimes like robbery to concentrate primarily on murders.
Meanwhile, devices meant to control citizens, prisoners and the mentally ill have become ever more dangerous, from stun guns (used even on elementary schoolkids), to stun belts, to restraint chairs. It was no surprise to Cusac when the Abu Ghraib story broke. She'd been seeing such practices going on in this country while researching Cruel and Unusual.
Much of the book is a culling of examples from Cusac's reading of source materials. While this is interesting throughout and often instructive, at times more analysis could be helpful. The book's epilogue seems unresolved, throwing out more examples from politics to pop culture, rather than reaching a conclusion. But then, as there's been no real conclusion on the issue in this country, a real resolution would be hard to come up with -- even disingenuous.