A withering, deeply depressing tour of the American prison scene from Pulitzer Prize–winning Wall Street Journal reporter Hallinan.
Except for a very few facilities, US prisons have been (and remain) uniformly grim. There have always been plenty of episodes of guard brutality and ungodly conditions in the cells, to which are now added overcrowding, gangs, and a type of administrative segregation—what used to be called solitary confinement—that results in an environment so devoid of mental stimulation that mental collapse is a foregone conclusion. In prose that is crunchy without being lock-jawed or brittle, the author provides a concise history of prisons—from medieval carcers to bridewells to the most up-to-date (and inevitably tagged) supermax—as well as an overview of the (sensible to ridiculous) paths once taken for prisoner rehabilitation, now a practice mostly abandoned: rehab is out, punishment is in; penal theory is out, cost accounting (make that profitability) is in. Hallinan covers the story of the privatization of prisons with as much aplomb as he can muster, for it is often a nasty stew of payoffs and greed and neglect, and he details the growth of the prison industry, a public works project that throws off money like a pinwheel does sparks. Along the way, he chillingly portrays a number of correctional facilities, from classic rock-breaking joints in Alabama (where they have to import the boulders for inmates to crack) to the state of Texas (whose prison system was once characterized as “probably the best example of slavery remaining in the nation,” by the director of Oklahoma’s correctional facilities). Over the whole story hovers the culture of fear that has come to pervade the nation and the subsequent laws (such as the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984) that have packed the prison system.
The Big House in America, with few exceptions, is a place where everyone involved (inside and out) should hang their heads in shame.