Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment

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Overview

America's criminal justice system is broken. The United States punishes at a higher per capita rate than any other country in the world. In the last twenty years, incarceration rates have risen 500 percent. Sentences are harsh, prisons are overcrowded, life inside is dangerous, and rehabilitation programs are ineffective. Police and prosecutors operate in the dark shadows of the legal process--sometimes resigning themselves to the status quo, sometimes turning a profit from it. The courts define punishment as ...

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Inferno

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Overview

America's criminal justice system is broken. The United States punishes at a higher per capita rate than any other country in the world. In the last twenty years, incarceration rates have risen 500 percent. Sentences are harsh, prisons are overcrowded, life inside is dangerous, and rehabilitation programs are ineffective. Police and prosecutors operate in the dark shadows of the legal process--sometimes resigning themselves to the status quo, sometimes turning a profit from it. The courts define punishment as "time served," but that hardly begins to explain the suffering of prisoners.

Looking not only to court records but to works of philosophy, history, and literature for illumination, Robert Ferguson, a distinguished law professor, diagnoses all parts of a now massive, out-of-control punishment regime. He reveals the veiled pleasure behind the impulse to punish (which confuses our thinking about the purpose of punishment), explains why over time all punishment regimes impose greater levels of punishment than originally intended, and traces a disturbing gap between our ability to quantify pain and the precision with which penalties are handed down.

Ferguson turns the spotlight from the debate over legal issues to the real plight of prisoners, addressing not law professionals but the American people. Do we want our prisons to be this way? Or are we unaware, or confused, or indifferent, or misinformed about what is happening? Acknowledging the suffering of prisoners and understanding what punishers do when they punish are the first steps toward a better, more just system.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - David Cole
Inferno ranges widely to offer a fascinating "anatomy of American punishment," drawing on such diverse sources as Kant, Ursula K. Le Guin and Jack Henry Abbott, among many others.
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/23/2013
Columbia Univ. professor Ferguson succeeds in his aim of provoking thought in this broad assault on the American approach to punishing crime. He limns the scope of the problem by using some shocking comparative statistics, such as the fact that "America has less than 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners," or that Congress "averages more than fifty-six new federal crimes a year." Ferguson also manages to make the reader identify with the incarcerated, no mean feat in a society where many are more likely to view themselves as a potential victim of crime than a potential inmate; he does so with an opening paragraph depicting the violence and despair at the heart of the day-to-day experience of most prisoners. The need for punishment is not in question, rather it is the severity, and Ferguson time and again forces the reader to look deeper at an issue to which most people are oblivious. And even the reason for that attitude bears consideration—the shift away from punishment as a "public spectacle" effectively rendered those punished invisible. Ferguson occasionally lapses into dense prose, but for the most part he makes a heavy, complex, and contentious subject accessible to the layperson. (Mar.)
Paul W. Kahn
Robert Ferguson’s Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment is a book of searing moral vision. He asks how it is that we have become a nation of punishers who can no longer see the human dignity of the punished—indeed, can no longer see the punished at all. Inferno penetrates the veil thrown over America’s prison archipelago, insisting that we recognize the psychological, moral, and social consequences to the punished and punishers alike. How, he asks, have we allowed the growth of a punishment regime no less horrifying than that of the Soviet gulags? Ferguson is our Dante, acting as our guide through the travesty that is the American inferno. No one can come away from this book without a sense of their own complicity in the sin of our nation, yet with some hope that though the path forward is difficult, it is not yet completely closed.
The Atlantic - Andrew Cohen
If I had won the $400 million Powerball lottery last week I swear I would have ordered a copy for every member of Congress, every judge in America, every prosecutor, and every state prison official and lawmaker who controls the life of even one of the millions of inmates who exist today, many in inhumane and deplorable conditions, in our nation's prisons. The book is potentially transformative not just because it offers policy makers some solutions to the litany of problems they face as they seek ways to reform our broken penal systems. It is transcendent because it posits that America needs a fundamentally revised understanding of the concept of punishment itself if it is to save its soul in these prisons…This book forces prison officials and lawmakers to look inward and see within themselves the dark, unremitting reasons why things have gotten as bad as they have inside our prisons and jails. It says squarely to these political and legal and community leaders (and by extension to their constituents): in seeking to bring retributive justice to bear, in seeking to diminish the prisoner, you have also diminished yourself in ways you are unable or unwilling to admit. Even today, with the whiff of reform in the air, this is a brave and honest message.
Lloyd Weinreb
Inferno is a passionate, anguished cry against what is sometimes lamented but more than anything is taken for granted and ignored. He enlists his readers in a serious and sustained effort to reform America's prisons and jails. I know of no book just like Ferguson's.
The Atlantic - Andrew Cohen
If I had won the $400 million Powerball lottery last week I swear I would have ordered a copy for every member of Congress, every judge in America, every prosecutor, and every state prison official and lawmaker who controls the life of even one of the millions of inmates who exist today, many in inhumane and deplorable conditions, in our nation's prisons. The book is potentially transformative not just because it offers policy makers some solutions to the litany of problems they face as they seek ways to reform our broken penal systems. It is transcendent because it posits that America needs a fundamentally revised understanding of the concept of punishment itself if it is to save its soul in these prisons…This book forces prison officials and lawmakers to look inward and see within themselves the dark, unremitting reasons why things have gotten as bad as they have inside our prisons and jails. It says squarely to these political and legal and community leaders (and by extension to their constituents): in seeking to bring retributive justice to bear, in seeking to diminish the prisoner, you have also diminished yourself in ways you are unable or unwilling to admit. Even today, with the whiff of reform in the air, this is a brave and honest message.
Boston Globe - Jesse Singal
This is less a public-policy book than a deeper exploration of what it means to punish… So much of Ferguson’s project is an attempt to bring readers closer to understanding what it’s like to fall into the maw of the justice system--that’s why he has no compunction about bringing in literature (Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and other authors) when nonfiction is too dry or imprecise to do the job. When trying to understand the unimaginable torment of sitting alone in a coffin-like cell for years, or of watching helplessly as one’s execution date creeps closer and closer, sometimes fictions comes closer to capturing these horrors better than any ACLU report ever could. Inferno is a wide-ranging effort that covers many subjects. A section on Cesare Beccaria, an 18th-century thinker and reformer on justice issues, is fascinating…Ferguson’s descriptions of the hell that is solitary confinement (and the arbitrary, capricious manner in which the incarcerated are subjected to it) are powerful…Inferno still stands out as an interesting, intellectually innovative take on a hellish problem.
The Dish - Andrew Sullivan
Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment explores the unusual cruelty and vengefulness in our criminal justice system.
Maclean’s - Brian Bethune
The measurements of the American mania for incarceration are both staggering and, apparently, meaningless. With five per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 per cent of its prisoners, 100,000 of them in mind- and soul-destroying solitary…The heart of this superb book is a search for the deeper reasons, for the roots of the American impulse to punish, and punish severely. Ferguson…maintains a tone that is remarkably, not accusatory or political, as he roams through Dante and Melville, Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli looking for clues, for the punished are generally silent (or silenced)…The current, self-defeating situation--where the $80-billion-a-year U.S. prison system does nothing so well as it trains and brutalizes future violent offenders--has been a generation in the making, and will probably take as long to wind down. But that process can’t even begin until Americans start talking about why they do what they do.
Weekly Standard - Robert F. Nagel
Inferno is a passionate, wide-ranging effort to understand and challenge…our heavy reliance on imprisonment. It is an important book, especially for those (like me) who are inclined towards avoidance and tragic complacency. If Robert A. Ferguson is persuasive on nothing else, he is convincing in his claim that we should look our use of imprisonment full in the face. That means examining the psychological, philosophical, cultural, institutional, and political reasons for locking so many away. This examination can be uncomfortable indeed. Ferguson is relentless in demonstrating how our use of the language of fairness and rationality can obscure vindictiveness and arbitrariness…Ferguson brings this unblinking honesty to other aspects of the punishment system. He insists that we uncover and acknowledge the pleasure people can take in retribution. He shows how the sterile influence of legal positivism has helped to strip legal language of its moral component…His book is too balanced and thoughtful to be disregarded.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Joshua Dubler
Probing and thought-provoking…The book moves deftly among philosophy, law, and criminology, but its heart and soul is literature…[An] excellent book.
America - Francis R. Herrmann
The book’s descent into the frightening depths of criminal punishment leaves us nearly despondent…Ferguson’s major re­-envisioning of what incarceration offers us is a chance to turn our present incarcerative hell into a purgative place where hope of redemption can still survive…Ferguson’s book opens our eyes in the darkness and points to a possible exit. It should be required reading for judges, legislators, politicians, prison authorities and all of us who are democratically responsible for the inferno that together we have created.
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-05
An eye-opening report about how the United States, with just 5 percent of the world's population, holds 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. Ferguson (Law, Literature and Criticism/Columbia University; Alone in America: The Stories that Really Matter, 2013, etc.) charges that American prisons have "become an evil for all concerned." Federal, state and local governments spend $80 billion per year on a system that provides jobs for one out of nine state employees. In order to promote the system's growth, private prison companies, as well as the unions representing guards, have become a self-serving lobby wielding their clout over political decision-makers. As one example, Louisiana's privatized, for-profit system holds one out of every 86 of the state's citizens: three times more than in Iran, seven times more than in China and 10 times more than in Germany. The numbers jailed and the severity of the sentences— including life without parole for nonviolent crimes—are no longer comparable to any of the countries that are peers and allies of the U.S. Overcrowding risks unrest, and financial costs have outgrown available revenue. Ultimately, writes Ferguson, U.S. prison policy has reached a breaking point. The author puts much of the blame on the politicians whose legislation brought about this state of affairs, and he calls their political desires "the punitive impulse in American society." He wants to know whether it is reversible, noting that it's "simply a fact that voters promote to high office those politicians who want tougher penalties." Ferguson dates the origins of this current, nearly intractable situation to a knee-jerk response to widespread urban riots 50 years ago. An important wake-up call about an emerging crisis that threatens to become a human rights scandal of global proportions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674728684
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 3/3/2014
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 577,116
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert A. Ferguson is George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature, and Criticism at Columbia University.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2014

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