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Prison Nation - Columbia Political Review 2003

Columbia Political Review, Jan. 1, 2003.
Book Review - Prison Nation - Columbia Political Review 2003

Columbia Political Review

May 2003, Vol. 2, No. 5

Penal Colony

America’s penal system is debauched, defunct, and destitute.

By Harold Braswell

The law itself is not enough. In order for the law to have concrete authority beyond abstract words, institutions must not only account for the law’s enforcement, but also its inevitable violation. Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor ostensibly deals with the institution charged with the latter of these responsibilities, the penal system. Nevertheless, by virtue of its breadth of content and force of argument, the book transcends its supposed subject matter to take on almost every aspect of the judicial process in the United States.

Prison Nation contains 41 essays written by a collection of lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, professors, and prisoners. Such a wide spectrum of commentators could potentially result in chaos. The book’s editors—Tara Herivel, a lawyer, and Paul Wright, a Washington state prisoner, lawyer, and the editor of Prison Legal News—have organized the collection in such a way, however, that the dense, statistic-laden pieces of the lawyers combine with the book’s other, less academic (and therefore more human) contributions to give the reader both the cold facts of the prison system and the anguished face behind them.

The one thread uniting almost all of the book’s essays is the prison system’s corporate corruption. And there is plenty of corruption to criticize. Whether dealing with the increasing wave of private prisons, the large disjunction in the judicial system’s treatment of individual and corporate crimes, or just plain cost-cutting and negligence, Prison Nation gives a thorough treatment of the connections between large corporations and the American justice system without losing sight of the effects these sordid relationships have on everyday prisoners. One of the most interesting articles in this vein, Gordon Lafer’s “The Politics of Prison Labor,” shows how private corporations use prison labor not only for its affordable price ($2 per hour), but also as a way to undermine workers’ unions.

Prison Nation is also hard on both the federal and state governments. While state governments are charged with negligence in enforcing the rights guaranteed to prisoners by both the eighth amendment (which allows “neither cruel, nor unusual punishment”) and the Supreme Court decision in Estelle v. Gamble (which expands on the Eighth Amendment to prohibit “deliberate indifference”), the federal government has the greater notoriety for passing legislation that deprives prisoners of the few, poorly enforced rights they had to begin with. Bill Clinton is guilty on both counts. As governor of Arkansas, he awarded control over the state’s prison health care system to Health Management Associates, a company whose “blood mining” practices earned it the excoriation of the Supreme Court. As president, Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which greatly impeded prisoners’ ability to secure representation for civil-rights complaints. Surprisingly enough, George W. Bush gets off relatively easily in Prison Nation. Although a few of the essays do attack the Bush administration for the “indefinite detentions” brought about by the Patriot Act, nearly nothing is said about the records for annual executions that he both set (37 in 1997) and broke (40 in 2000) while governor in Texas.

If the collection demonstrates many of the left’s strengths — particularly its ability to point out the corruption and hypocrisy of the social system — it also gives proof of one of the left’s central weaknesses — its tendency to point out the corruption and hypocrisy of the social system without citing any valid sources. In Prison Nation, this revolt against citation is led by none other than Noam Chomsky, an obligatory contributor to any anthology left of William F. Buckley’s Fairy Tales. Chomsky’s nonexistent evidence, smug tone, and occasionally ludicrous assertions (“[third-world countries] are all more or less the same”) are an insult both to the issue he addresses (drug policy as a means of social control) and the nuanced and well-substantiated arguments of many of the other contributions. Thankfully, Chomsky and his ilk are the exception rather than the rule in Prison Nation, and, although their presence sours the collection, it does not spoil it.

The measure of any good angry leftist essay collection is not just its ability to scream about social injustice; it must also attempt to provide a solution. Although Prison Nation fails in this last regard, it does provide the impetus for the rest of us to start looking for one. According to the ACLU, the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and will most likely return to society within 20 years. Thus, the success of their reintegration—and the elimination of the prison system’s ills—is of crucial importance for all of us. If prisoners are sent to prison for their lack of respect for the law, do we really want a prison system that takes away the little respect that they had to begin with?

Tara Herivel & Paul Wright, eds.
Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor
332 pages
Taylor and Francis, Inc., 2003



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