In his inaugural address, Barack Obama pledged to renew the nation’s founding creed, to carry forward “that precious gift, that noble idea…that all are equal, all are free.” Some 1.8 million people gathered on the National Mall to hear the new president on that icy January morning. Yet a considerably larger mass–equivalent to adding the population of Boston to the celebration–spent the same day behind bars. For America is not only the land of the free, as the Navy chorus chanted from the presidential dais. It is also, to an extraordinary extent, the land of the unfree, the most incarcerated society on earth.
The United States was not always so locked down. For most of the twentieth century its incarceration rate hovered near one-tenth of one percent, roughly the same as in other industrial free societies. Then, from the early 1970s forward, the federal and state governments began extending sentences, curtailing judicial discretion and restricting early releases. The prison population soared. By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, approximately one out of every 100 adults was in jail or prison, a proportion unmatched in the history of democracy.
During this same period, racial disparities in the criminal justice system have widened. At mid-century, during segregation, the black imprisonment rate was about four times higher than that of whites; by 2005 it was seven times higher. If current trends continue, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. For the grandchildren of Brown v. Board of Education on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, American justice has become more separate and unequal, not less.
Analysts have put forward competing explanations for this severity revolution in criminal justice. Law-and-order conservatives point to elevated postwar crime rates, while critics blame private prison profiteering; unintended policy consequences, like supervised parole, that send tens of thousands to prison for failing a urinalysis; and even the excesses of popular democracy, as exemplified by merciless ballot initiatives like three-strikes laws.
Anne-Marie Cusac aims to synthesize this debate in an ambitious but jumbled new book, Cruel and Unusual. Emphasizing the physical pain of punishment and drawing on an eclectic mix of sources, from TV shows to trial transcripts, her study brings a host of fresh ideas to the discussion. Although Cusac has an eye for startling anecdote, her overarching contention that America’s “culture of punishment” has sprung from Christian roots ultimately confuses as much as it clarifies. Unwittingly, her book makes a stronger case for alternate explanations for the country’s punitive turn than for those she develops herself.
Cruel and Unusual roams widely across time and topic, from the hanging of witches in the seventeenth century to Taser shocks in the twenty-first, from torments inflicted by prison guards to coercive tactics employed by teachers, pastors and military officers. Among the Puritans, Cusac discovers, parents tried to beat “the will” out of their infants, because, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “all are by nature the children of wrath, and heirs of hell.” In the 1920s leased prisoners in Alabama “frequently put dynamite caps in their boots and blasted off toes or feet” to escape even greater suffering in the mines. With sections about chain gangs, mental hospitals and lynch mobs, Cusac strings together a disquieting counterhistory of repressive violence, which, she suggests, has been inaccurately omitted from sunnier accounts of evolving disciplinary norms.