Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Book Review: Anne-Marie Cusac, Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America, 336 pp, Yale University Press, $27.50

Anne-Marie Cusac is probing important questions in her book, Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America. What are the underlying social values that have allowed a prison state as vast as the U.S.’s to thrive? How is this related to the many examples of violence in popular culture? Cusac argues that the explosion in the number of prisons, the astronomical rates of incarceration, and the current harsh conditions within prisons are due in part to the resurgence of retributive, physical punishments that view prisoners as people deserving of harsh violent treatment. While I agree, I do not believe Cusac has laid out the most convincing case for why that is so.

Cusac traces cultures of punishment throughout U.S. history. She documents the use of public executions, whippings and mutilations as punishment during colonial days. She locates their roots in both traditional English law and also strict Christian beliefs about the pervasive nature of sin and the Devil. After the American Revolution, reformers pinned part of the new country’s future on the ability to more humanely punish, marking a move away from the idea that all people who commit crimes are inherently evil.

While reformers advocated for punishment techniques that embodied a vision of rehabilitation, their very suggestions pio-neered new forms of violence, such as frequent use of solitary confinement and creating the first large-scale prisons. By the late 1700s widespread abuse and corporal punishment had been documented inside prisons and excessive use of solitary confine-ment had been roundly criticized. By the 1930s, Progressive reformers faced the rise of vicious contract prison labor practices. Violence also surfaced in various spheres of non-prison life, from the commonplace activity of whipping children in school to the brutality of lynch mobs in the Jim Crow South.

By the 1970s, cultural, economic and political shifts indicated a return of mainstream retributive punishment policies. Reactions to the social upheaval of the 1960s and economic changes that created large communities of urban unemployed, combined with white flight to suburbs, all contributed to the loss of rehabilitation ideals. “Tough on crime” politicians rode into office on waves of moral panic that identified “criminals” as people who were innately evil and deserving of harsh punishment. Public policy turned towards harsher sentencing laws and criminalization of activities such as drug use, while cutting social services.

The shift to a more violent, individualized approach to crime has been mirrored in popular culture, Cusac argues. Shows such as Cops and CSI and movies such as The Brave One are signs of a shift towards violent retribution in larger society, and perpetuate harsh policies towards prisoners.

Cusac uses a detailed investigation into some of the new punishment technologies in prisons and policing, specifically stun belts and restraint chairs, to highlight how violent physical punishment has come to characterize our prison and jail systems. She concludes the book by drawing parallels between contemporary patterns documented in the U.S. and the torture revealed at the military-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. She notes that all the forms of violence documented had previously been seen in prisons and jails throughout the U.S., and some of the prison and jail officials involved in those scandals were employed in various capacities in Abu Ghraib.

While making an admirable effort to uncover the long-standing roots of violent tendencies within the U.S.’s disciplinarian tac-tics, ultimately Cruel and Unusual feels like an uneven compilation of anecdotes. Some chapters contain detailed descriptions of torture that verge on voyeuristic, others contain in-depth discussions of movies such as The Exorcist, and there is little explanation as to the variety or the sources chosen.

I also found one of Cusac’s central arguments – that many of our notions around punishment derive from orthodox Christi-anity – is not carried throughout the book consistently. There is huge potential in exploring the rise of the Christian Right and the explosion of the prison-state, but Cusac fails to make solid connections between the violent punishments for both children and adults advocated by fundamentalist Christians and how those ideologies spill over into other examples of violence in popular culture and criminal public policy.

Perhaps most disturbingly, overall the book fails to adequately address the hierarchical nature of punishment. Cusac’s narrative barely includes the role that one of the U.S. government’s most violent state institutions, slavery, or the related ex-tralegal state violence of lynchings, played in the development of punishment cultures. A discussion of the public executions of so-called “witches” in 17th century Massachusetts and her account of contemporary Christian fundamentalism similarly fail to consider how violent punishment is intimately linked to rigid gender roles.

While this may not be the book to examine in depth the ways that punishment is historically and contemporarily in-flicted based on ideologies of race, class and gender, any discussion of how our modern-day prison system came to be without a thorough look at these disparities seems remiss.

Ignoring the larger social dynamics allows Cusac to lament the loss of the “rehabilitation” traditions from colonial reformers such as Benjamin Rush. “[T]he
belief that human beings could reform underlay the philosophy of prisons and penitentiaries, dating from the revolutionary exu-berance of Benjamin Rush. As American culture increasingly connected evil with individual human beings, it abandoned hope of rehabilitating them,” she writes.

But Cusac is ignoring her own evidence: Benjamin Rush designed the first restraint chair used in today’s prisons and jails and advocated for extensive solitary confinement. While she is critical of the harsh, individualized approach to crime that is per-vasive today, the rhetoric of rehabilitation ultimately leads to the same conclusion, as she shows again and again. It is clearly important to fight the culture of violence that pervades our prisons and jails, as Cusac ultimately argues, but I would hope we can do so in a manner that leads to more substantial and lasting change.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login