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Cruel and Unusual

Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Cruel and Unusual
    Book Description:

    The statistics are startling. Since 1973, America's imprisonment rate has multiplied over five times to become the highest in the world. More than two million inmates reside in state and federal prisons. What does this say about our attitudes toward criminals and punishment? What does it say about us?

    This book explores the cultural evolution of punishment practices in the United States. Anne-Marie Cusac first looks at punishment in the nation's early days, when Americans repudiated Old World cruelty toward criminals and emphasized rehabilitation over retribution. This attitude persisted for some 200 years, but in recent decades we have abandoned it, Cusac shows. She discusses the dramatic rise in the use of torture and restraint, corporal and capital punishment, and punitive physical pain. And she links this new climate of punishment to shifts in other aspects of American culture, including changes in dominant religious beliefs, child-rearing practices, politics, television shows, movies, and more.

    America now punishes harder and longer and with methods we would have rejected as cruel and unusual not long ago. These changes are profound, their impact affects all our lives, and we have yet to understand the full consequences.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15549-5
    Subjects: History, Law, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-16)

    My grandmother and i had spent hours sorting through family photographs when one—of a baby in a baptismal gown—silenced her. When she didn’t speak, I searched for something to say and came up with the easy observation that the baby was cute. “He’s a rapist,” she answered. From the moment my grandmother pronounced him “rapist,” I saw in the photo no tiny innocent in white lace but a guilty, frightening man. Accompanying my new vision was an odd flush of disproportion: we could look at an infant and perceive the child as evil.

    This is a book about...

  5. CHAPTER 1 When Punishment Is the Subject, Religion Is the Predicate
    (pp. 17-30)

    In 1634, thomas hartley, from Hungars Parish, Virginia, sent a letter to John Endicott, the former governor of Massachusetts. The letter contained an account of torture by ducking stool: “It is undeniable ye they endeavor to live amiably, keep ye peece in families and communities, and by divers means try to have harmony and good-will amongst themselves and with Strangers who may sojourn among them. For this they use a device which they learned in England, they say, to keep foul tongues that make noise and mischief, silent, and of which I must faine tell you.”

    The “device,” explained Hartley,...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “A Heart Is Not Wholly Corrupted”: REVOLUTION, RELIGION, PUNISHMENT
    (pp. 31-49)

    Benjamin rush, revolutionary, signer of the Declaration of Independence, early abolitionist, professor of chemistry, “father of American psychiatry,” and foe of yellow fever was a passionately religious man. He craved symmetry between his personal and his political beliefs. Rush consistently extended his thoughts and his religious life to politics, and vice versa, and he placed himself in the thick of the day’s political excitement. He exemplifies both the religious ferment and the punishment transformations that followed the Revolution.

    As can be seen from his correspondence, Rush identified himself as a Presbyterian as late as 1784.¹ Then, in 1785, he experienced...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Reforming The Reforms
    (pp. 50-71)

    On a hill that once bore a cherry orchard at the northern edge of Philadelphia rose a massive symbol of the land of the free—the Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons had prodded the state legislature for decades to construct such a building, and the society rejoiced in the structure. A pamphlet published by the society in 1830, when the building was partly finished and already housing inmates, devotes sentences to the “large sums” spent on the prison. Total expense when the building is finished, as reported in “A View...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Punishment Creep
    (pp. 72-92)

    Similarities can be found among nineteenth-century punishments in closed societies, locations—such as schools, ships, and plantations—without extensive public oversight and where one group of people controls another. Partly because of the lack of outside regulation, partly because of the intensive day-in and day-out nature of relationships in closed environments, punishment there can acquire an extreme cast.

    Perhaps the easiest way to convey this understanding of punishment history is to compare corporal punishments in the public square—a fixed number of lashings, a letter branded on the forehead, a tongue bored through with a hot iron, a lopped-off ear...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Vigilantism and Progressivism
    (pp. 93-108)

    The words “vigilantism” and “Progressivism” do not often appear in the same sentence. Yet at their height in the early twentieth century, the two trends shared a cultural moment and a preoccupation with punishment. Both are responses to the liberationist movements of the nineteenth century. Progressivism in the northern United States took on a reformist role that resembled the purpose of its predecessors but, critically, transferred the motivating energy from religion to science. Southern Progressivism, vivid in the notorious chain gangs that rebuilt the South—and cost many prisoners their lives—was like its northern counterpart a modernizing attempt to...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Devilish Generation
    (pp. 109-133)

    Near the end ofThe Exorcist, William Blatty’s 1971 novel, the mother of a young girl who has just survived a horrific possession tells a priest why she has a stronger faith in the Devil than in God. “The Devil keeps advertising, Father,” she says. “The Devil does lots of commercials.”¹

    The novel makes explicit a few of these “commercials.” The book’s opening page contains four epigraphs. The first tells the story of Jesus commanding the demon that calls itself Legion to leave a man. The second is a segment from an FBI wiretap of three gangsters who hung their...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Flogging for Jesus
    (pp. 134-169)

    In one of his sermons, the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards portrays parents in paradise gazing upon their dead children, who are suffering in hell. The parents, writes Edwards, look down, “with holy joy upon their countenances” as they perceive evidence of divine justice.¹

    But why are the tots in hell? For Edwards and many others of his era, all children are born damned.

    Another passage from Edwards sums up his view of the state of the souls of children who have not yet turned away from their natural condition: “All are by nature the children of wrath, and heirs of...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Pain Becomes Valuable Again
    (pp. 170-182)

    In 1974, the year Gary Gilmore committed his murders, the first film of the Charles BronsonDeath Wishseries drew crowds to American movie houses. The crime rate was on the rise, andDeath Wishoffered an answer to crime fear. Featuring a citizen assassin and a host of ineffectual police officers,Death Wishis a propaganda film for vigilante justice. After the wife and daughter of a New York City architect are murdered, Charles Bronson, playing the role of their vengeful husband and father, walks the dark streets, hoping to attract muggers so he can shoot them. A central...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Pop Culture and the Criminal Element
    (pp. 183-211)

    Cotton mather, the prominent Puritan preacher, was also a runaway success as a crime-and-punishment author. One day he delivered an execution sermon about a woman condemned to the gallows for killing her child. Mather prayed that the death sentence of the “miserable Malefactor” “might bee so ordered in His providence, as to givemeea special Opportunity of glorifying my Lord Jesus Christ, on that Occasion.” The woman’s hanging was originally scheduled for a week when another preacher would deliver the execution sermon. But the judges in the case delayed the event and “allow’d her Execution to fall on the...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Stunning Technology
    (pp. 212-229)

    In the 1990s a company called Stun Tech invented the REACT (Remote Electronically Activated Control Technology) belt. An electronic shocking device secured to a person’s waist, the belt was the hot new item in corrections gear. The device appealed to guards because they could apply punishment without having to go near the prisoner wearing the belt. They could set off the eight-second, 50,000-volt stun from as far away as three hundred feet.¹

    Stun Tech claimed the device was “100 percent non-lethal.” Sales boomed in 1994 when the federal Bureau of Prisons decided to use the belt in medium- and high-security...

  15. CHAPTER 11 The Return to Restraint
    (pp. 230-243)

    In the early 1990s, Benjamin Rush’s tranquilizing chair returned to American prisons and jails. The late twentieth-century version was built of plastic and metal, instead of wood, and it lacked the box that had once encased people’s heads. It had a new name: the restraint chair. But like its predecessor, the chair immobilized prisoners and mental patients.¹ Belts and cuffs of this “chair” prevent the prisoner’s legs, arms, and torso from moving. To jail and prison employees it is known as the “strap-o-lounger,” the “barcalounger,” the “we care chair,” and the “be sweet chair.” Inmates and their lawyers have other...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Abu Ghraib, USA
    (pp. 244-252)

    On september 11, 2001, a horrific murder of thousands took place. The atrocity quickly became a cultural touchstone; a hideous, galvanizing event that many citizens witnessed in televised real time; a moment when it became apparent that a determined “they” wanted to hurt “us”; a nightmare that played again and again on televisions and in people’s minds. The allegations of torture that would follow a few years later are almost as famous. The names “Abu Ghraib” and “Guantánamo Bay” seem to contain the misdirection of American revenge.

    The tortures had linguistic precursors. For many pundits and writers, after September 11...

  17. Epilogue: A LITTLE GOOD NEWS
    (pp. 253-260)

    In his 1787 essay “An Enquiry into the Effects of Public Punishments upon Criminals, and upon Society,” Benjamin Rush worried that punishments in the town square would cause “the principle of sympathy” to “cease to act altogether.”¹ Rush warned that public punishments harm other forms of social cohesion, including familial love. Once “the principle of sympathy” ends, he wrote, “misery of every kind will then be contemplated without emotion or sympathy—the widow and the orphan —the naked—the sick, and the prisoner, will have no avenue to our services or our charity.”² His is a warning suitable for his...

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 261-302)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 303-318)