Cruel and Usual Punishment:
The American Prison System Revisited
By Jonah Raskin
In Solitary, his new book (University of California Press) about prisons, prisoners and their keepers, Terry Allen Kupers has his eyes on readers who aren’t prisoners and who have probably rarely if ever been locked up behind bars. He refers to his audience directly in the very last paragraph. “We go about our ordinary daily activities in comfortable homes, modern offices, and shopping malls,” Kupers writes. “But we cannot quite free our minds of the possibility of future violent incursions into our lives.”
He might have added that many of “us” build walls around our houses, put bars on our windows, and drive around in vehicles that seem more suited for military assault than for taking kids to soccer practice or shopping at Whole Foods.
I suppose that I’m one of the readers that Kupers has in mind, though I have been arrested, beaten and tortured by officers of the law and have spent brief amounts of time in jails.
On one occasion, after protesting in the streets of Manhattan against the murder by the Chicago police of two Black Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, I was charged with “criminal anarchy” and “attempted murder.” (Charges were latter dropped.) Plainclothes cops dressed as hippies banged me on the head with their nightsticks and carted me off to a hospital where an emergency room doctor stitched my wounds. Then I was taken from one precinct to another where two dozen or so New York cops worked me over with clubs, pliers, elbows and fists.
My lawyer, Paul Chevigny, said it was the worst case of beating by the police he had ever seen, and he specialized in “police brutality.”
In the forty-eight years since that incident took place, police brutality and prison conditions in the United States have only gotten worse, especially in penal institutions called “Supermax” where solitary confinement is the norm and not the exception.
Terry Allen Kupers, a psychiatrist well-informed about the inhumanity of U.S. prisons, tells a harrowing story with facts and figures, personal anecdotes of his experiences on the “inside” and with portrait of men and women often euphemistically called “inmates.” Along the way, he offers a quotation from the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who observed famously that, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Kupers also offers a powerful description that Charles Dickens wrote after a visit to a penitentiary in Pennsylvania in 1842.
“The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement,” Dickens exclaimed. He added, “I believe it to be cruel and wrong.” Indeed, it was in violation of the Eight Amendment to the U.S. constitution that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” American prisons have been in violation of the Constitution ever since the Constitution was written.
Kupers also offers a useful discussion of Michel Foucault’s observation that in France there was a shift away from “public spectacles of cruel punishment” to “punishments that were meant to act more on the soul than the body and were hidden away from public view.”
Not that long ago, prisons were located in big cities; in New York, the “Women’s House of Detention” wasn’t far from Times Square. More recently, prisons have been removed to remote towns far from the communities where the prisoners grew up and where their families reside. That, too, is a form of isolation and punishment.
Still, there are some prisons, such as San Quentin, that are close to big metropolitan centers. Anyone who drives from affluent Marin County to Berkeley and Oakland has to drive past San Quentin.
I was inside San Quentin once, as a teacher, and once was enough. I did not want to return, though the prisoners were eager for me to come back and help them write appeals.
Kypers has been much braver than I. He has gone back again and again, watched and listened and later testified in court about what psychiatrist Karl Menninger called The Crime of Punishment (1968). Is it really that long ago that Menninger wrote his classic? Are American prisons more criminal than the men and women charged with crimes and then locked up? Yes, apparently so.
On a visit with Mumia Abu Jamal—one on the most famous American prisoners today—in the State Correctional Institution in Greene, Pennsylvania, Kupers heard an interviewer ask Mumia, “Who are you?” Then he heard Mumia say, “I am a thinker, writer, activist, creative being, man, dad, husband, grandpop and son.” Mumia added, “I’m a free Black man living in captivity.”
If only those of us on the outside were as inclusive as Mumia, and as unwilling as he to accept labels, whether imposed by ourselves or by others.
As Bob Seger sang in a song from 1978, “I’m not a number.”
My own view of the Supermax doesn’t contradict Kupers’ view, but I think that there’s a different emphasis. In my view, the function of the Supermax is to break down human beings, isolate them others, destroy their humanity and prevent them from reading, writing, thinking and demanding to be treated with respect and dignity.
The contemporary Supermax, with its cages and near constant surveillance, came into existence after the 1971 uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York where state troopers shot and killed 33 inmates and ten guards. Then, Governor Nelson Rockefeller blamed the violence on the prisoners.
Kupers suggests that Attica prompted reforms, but by and large it also encouraged the construction of massive prisons with the latest technology and dehumanizing architecture specifically intended to prevent uprisings like Attica. For me and many others in my generation, and the generation that preceded me, Attica was as decisive an event as the My Lai Massacre where American soldiers slaughtered Vietnamese civilians.
Solitary probably won’t be read by many prisoners. It could enlighten “correctional officers,” to use another euphemism, and it ought to be read by students and teachers in college departments that are supposed to teach “Criminal Justice.” In its way, Solitary is as powerful, as important and as compelling a book as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which shows how the “criminal injustice system” discriminates against African Americans, violates their basic human rights and treats them as twentieth-century slaves. Terry Allen Kupers affirms his own humanity and the humanity of the millions of Americans locked up in prisons from California to New York and Florida to the State of Washington. We may not be inside, but the shadow of the prison falls on every one of us, no matter where we live and work.
Jonah Raskin is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. by