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.
A few blurbs:
“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.”—Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic
“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.”—Paul W. Kahn, Yale Law School