Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment

Robert A. Ferguson. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (340p) ISBN 978-0-674-72868-4
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.)
Reviewed on: 12/23/2013
Release date: 03/01/2014
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