The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison (Icons of America Series)

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“The Big House" is America’s idea of the prison—­a huge, tough, ostentatiously oppressive pile of rock, bristling with rules and punishments, overwhelming in size and the intent to intimidate. Stephen Cox tells the story of the American prison—its politics, its sex, its violence, its inability to control itself—and its idealization in American popular culture. This book investigates both the popular images of prison and the realities behind them­: problems of control and discipline, maintenance and reform, power and sexuality. It conveys an awareness of the limits of human and institutional power, and of the symbolic and iconic qualities the “Big House” has attained in America’s understanding of itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Andrew Scull
"A first-rate piece of writing...captures and renders novel and interesting a remarkable nineteenth century creation that lingers on in the twenty-first."—Andrew Scull, author of Madhouse
Nathan Kantrowitz
“Professor Cox has brought prison studies into mainstream intellectual discourse, something Foucault tried to do but failed.”–Nathan Kantrowitz, author of Close Control: Managing a Maximum Security Prison
Theodore Dalrymple
"Short and very well written, The Big House captures beautifully the complexities, dilemmas, horrors and permanent fascination of prison life. It is humane without sentimentality and realistic without cynicism."–Theodore Dalrymple, author of Life at the Bottom
Publishers Weekly
In this sociological history of American penology, historian Cox describes the “Big House” era when state and federal prisons were sprawling structures that housed thousands of convicts. Simultaneously fearsome and awe inspiring, these dark behemoths became archetypal in the American imagination, and Cox recreates the world-within-a-world of these institutions by addressing the reader directly, marching him through the prison gates, shaving off his hair, dressing him in striped garb, locking him in a spare cell and noisily regimenting him for work, meals and recreation. Although some large prisons remain today (notably California's San Quentin), the Big House era ended with the closing of Alcatraz and in the face of critiques from the prisoner rights movement of the 1960s. Emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment, prisons became smaller, with “hardened” criminals separated from those guilty of less serious offenses. Although it cites criminology literature extensively, this detailed and vivid historical study is for the nonspecialist and provides a valuable look at the untold stories of life, sexuality, friendship and punishment in an overlooked corner—and microcosm—of American society. (Nov.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300124194
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/3/2009
  • Series: Icons of America Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 222
  • Sales rank: 1,064,543
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent books are The New Testament and Literature, The Woman and the Dynamo, and The Titanic Story.

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