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Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America

Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America

Author:Anne-marie Cusac
Release Date:2009
Publisher:Yale University Press

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 6/24/2009

Roosevelt University Assistant Professor Anne-Marie Cusac's excellent examination of punishment returns time and again to the notion of "punishment creep." "Punishment creep" occurs when new punitive technologies and concepts originate in a particular context, only gradually to bleed into different settings. Cruel and Unusual, which references and owes a great deal to the work of late philosopher Michel Foucault, traces the evolution of American punishment from the colonial period to the present day.

Early colonial discipline was closely linked to religion. Measures such as the ducking stool were generally performed in public--instructive examples of how not to live--and commission of sodomy could cost you your life. As the colonies edged away from the British crown, however, penitentiaries began to spring up. Inhumane punishment moved indoors--deprivations of food, tranquilizing chairs, iron gags--only later to leach out. Think schoolchildren flogged 10 times for "playing cards at school"; think the gruesome disfigurement of slaves by vigilante mobs; think the subsequent memorialization and commodification of same in postcard form in the post-Civil War era.

In later years, confinement turned increasingly and unabashedly mercantile, birthing a new form of corporal punishment. "States that contracted out their convicts could provide fewer cells and guards, and less food, bedding, and clothing," Cusac writes. Inmates not killed by harsh work regimens often engaged in creative disfigurements--hacking off fingers, blasting off feet, and so on--to escape these conditions.

As American views concerning the nature of criminality--spurred on by the mainstream media, the GOP, and the Religious Right -- hardened in the 1970s, minority unemployment, crime rates, and funding for prison construction skyrocketed, creating a cause-and-effect cycle that has kept cells jammed and led to the passage of harsher laws even as crime rates plummeted. Cusac notes that stricter drug laws have boosted the prison population, with New York's constricting Rockefeller drug laws leading the charge in 1973.

Increasingly, punishment creep sells. From the late '70s forward, the tendency of evening news programs to lead with grisly stories has intensified. In the early '90s, shock technology slipped the bounds of the electric chair in the form of the taser, offering prisons and police departments--and later, schools--an incapacitating tool-qua-toy for law enforcement and prison officers to use on convicts and suspects alike; such sadism traveled to locales as distant as Abu Ghraib. The country's lock-'em-up mindset engendered a rash of fictive and reality TV hits such as COPS, America's Most Wanted, the Law & Order franchise, and the torture-porn fantasia 24. Taser International's C-2 model is "available in four designer colors: Black Pearl, Titanium Silver, Electric Blue, and Metallic Pink."

When Stun Tech President Dennis Kaufman casually describes the promotional video for the company's REACT belt--a device used to stun high-risk prisoners that boasts a damning history of random activation--to Cusac as "great party viewing," he inadvertently makes the author's overarching, hair-raising point for her.

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