Cruel and Unusual


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The Culture of Punishment in America

Anne-Marie Cusac

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Scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo signal alarming changes in America’s attitudes toward criminals, punishment, and democratic ideals

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.

Anne-Marie Cusac is associate professor, Department of Communication, Roosevelt University, and a contributing writer to The Progressive. For her work as a journalist she has received the George Polk Award and on three occasions the Project Censored Award. She lives in Evanston, IL.

"This book is a bracing indictment of our culture's obsession with pain and revenge.  In chronicling the history and current reality of punishment in America, Anne-Marie Cusac exposes our collective loss of compassion to damning effect."—Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States

"Anne-Marie Cusac was there first, years ago, as a journalist tracking America's growing addiction to punishment and pain.  Now she describes how that obsession with brutality threatens our very ideals as a people, how the bearer of cruelty may be a victim of it as surely as its target.  Hers is a book as illuminating as it is terrifying."—William F. Schulz, former Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

"Anne-Marie Cusac’s Cruel and Unusual digs deeply into American history and culture to explain the extravagant cruelty of the punishments visited on criminal offenders. H. Rap Brown in the 1960s famously observed that 'violence is as American as apple pie.' So, says Cusac, is the gratuitous infliction of pain on wrongdoers. The black and white moralism of American Protestantism has given Americans an unusual ability to tolerate the sufferings of others, especially if those others have behaved immorally (as, by definition, most offenders have). Cusac has opened up a wide new field of exploration into the origins of American criminal law and punishment."—Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota

"Cusac illuminates the causal connections between culture and punishment, and her comparison of corporal punishment in the colonial era with contemporary practice yields powerful insights."—Amy Dru Stanley, University of Chicago

"Cusac's analysis should provoke a sense of deep concern: concern that contemporary punitiveness in America will damage our institutions, our political system, our culture."—Austin Sarat, Amherst College

"Excellent pieces of investigative journalism."--Peter Spierenburg, Journal of Social History

Winner of the 2009 Prevention for a Safer Society (PASS) sponsored by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency
ISBN: 9780300168013
Publication Date: September 28, 2010
336 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4