Almost everything you could want to know about putting people in jail. Reading a history of incarceration will not lift your...


WITH LIBERTY FOR SOME: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America

Almost everything you could want to know about putting people in jail. Reading a history of incarceration will not lift your spirits. Heroes are absent from these pages; indeed, it's a close call whether the prisoners or those who imprison them are more appalling examples of humanity. While punishment has become less physically inhumane--we no longer bore through the tongue with a hot iron, for example--it is nevertheless impossible to escape the suspicion that contemporary imprisonment has no more solid claim to social benefit than the tongue-boring of old. Despite this depressing subject matter, Christianson, an experienced investigative reporter and policy associate at the New York State Defenders Association, presents an intriguing and informative chronicle, weaving together accounts of slavery and prisoners of war with the more conventional jailing of convicted criminals. Some figures are shockingly grim. The prison camps of the Civil War, for example, had a total population roughly two and a half times the number of soldiers participating in the battle at Gettysburg, yet nearly ten times as many died in the prisons as in the battle. Some anecdotes are amusingly macabre. Thomas Edison, for example, favored the use of alternating current--promoted by his rival George Westinghouse--for electrocuting condemned prisoners ""to help define it as lethal in the public mind."" Throughout, the description is evenhanded and professional, and Christianson avoids the many opportunities to go into lurid detail simply for shock value. Indeed, some analytical forays beyond the historical narrative would be welcome. Christianson recognizes the central paradox of his subject matter--no country professes to love liberty more than America, yet no country imprisons more of its citizens, with the possible exception of Russia--but is content to fill in an enormous amount of background material without really offering an explanation for it. Surprisingly, this volume leaves you wanting more.

Pub Date: Nov. 20, 1998


Page Count: 384

Publisher: Northeastern Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

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