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date: 26 September 2017

Culture of Punishment in the USA

Summary and Keywords

Beginning in the mid-1970s, enormous changes governed U.S. punishment of criminal offenses, leading to harsher laws and longer prison terms than convicts in earlier decades served for the same offenses. The stark policy shift resulted in soaring prison populations that are disproportionate compared with most Western nations. The United States, with 5% of the world population, has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population rose 700% from 1970 to 2005. Today, one in 34 adults is under correctional control. The rates are disproportionate for minorities, especially less-educated black men (Lee, 2015; Pew, 2007, 2014; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2012).

Shifts in physical treatment of prisoners accompanied the population boom. Jails and prisons adopted control technologies that would likely have been considered inappropriate and inhumane decades earlier. These included the stun belt and the restraint chair, devices that can cause considerable pain. These also included extensive use of solitary confinement in Supermax prisons, an echo of a method used in 18th- and 19th -century American penitentiaries and discarded because of the dangers it posed to inmate mental health. And, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, treatment in U.S. prisons seemed to echo overseas in abuse of foreign prisoners in American hands. The Bush administration attempted to declare physical coercion as legal during interrogations, in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions (Shane, Johnston, & Risen, 2007).

What caused such a shift? Much of the change appears to be cultural in nature, connected strongly to forces such as politics, religion, pervasive beliefs about evil and children, popular culture, and economic realities. This also means that American punishment is historically more influenced by such cultural forces than by more seemingly related phenomena such as research on effective punishments, prisoner experience, or crime statistics.

That American cultural trends strongly influence American punishment also means that American daily lives respond to shifts in punitiveness. Such evidence of American punishment trends appear in popular television shows and treatment of children.

Keywords: retribution, rehabilitation, prison, U.S. popular culture, U.S. media, U.S. politics, corporal punishment, torture, religion, punishment and children, control devices, United States

History of Punishment and Culture in the United States

This article focuses on U.S. punishment while drawing some comparisons to punishment trends in other countries—predominantly those European nations that influenced early American practices. U.S. punishment culture is of significance because of the ubiquity of U.S. cultural influence worldwide. This influence results in the U.S. projecting its system (including prevalent ideas about punishment) to other countries via popular media, scholarship, and political theories. While some usages narrowly confine the concept of “culture” to the arts, this article understands culture, to cite a basic definition, “more broadly as the ways in which people live and represent themselves at particular historical times,” thus encompassing many areas of human belief, production, practice, communication, and leisure. In this understanding, culture is important because it “is a process that delivers the values of a society through products or other meaning-making forms.” While those exposed to the cultural process can respond in many ways, including resistance, and are not simply the passive recipients Theodor Adorno imagined in Negative Dialectics, even so, cultural meanings circulate through such vehicles as the mass media, pop culture, and religious beliefs (Campbell, Martin, & Fabos, 2010, pp. 5–6; Adorno & Horkheimer, 1979, pp. 120–167).

The American Colonies and the Culture of Punishment Inherited from Europe

American cultural traditions often draw on Christian assumptions to address wrongdoing, criminality, and punishment, even in otherwise secular contemporary prisons. The linking of punishment to religion arrived in North America with the European colonists (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000, pp. 23, 25–26).

In the American colonies many punishment practices involved public rituals. For instance, the ducking stool, a punitive machine imported from Europe, would hold offenders under water before a gathering that included representatives of the town government and religious leaders (Ibid). Execution, usually by hanging, was also public in the American colonies as in Europe.

Colonial governments often interpreted crimes as transgressions against God. Echoing Deuteronomy, the Massachusetts legal code of 1648 declared that children 16 and older who “shall curse or smite their natural mother or father” would be executed. So, too, with beliefs considered heretical in the Puritan colony. Quakers banished from a town should be punished for returning, said the Massachusetts Colonial Records of 1657, by having an ear cut off for the first offense, the other ear cut off plus a whipping for the second, and “their tongues bored through with a hot iron” for the third (Cahn, 1989, pp. 107, 135; Hall, 1968, p. 64; Earle, 1896, p. 141).

Sex crimes, including adultery and sodomy, were punished with execution and accounted for many of the early colonial executions. But executions for sexual acts declined as the number of capital punishments for witchcraft and piracy rose (Espy & Smylka, 2004; Boyer & Nissenbaum, 1977, p. 89; Winthrop & Weld, 2004, p. 213).

Sociologist Kai Erikson (1966) argued that a Puritan “crime wave” occurred in Salem in 1692. Crime “may actually perform a needed service to society by drawing people together in a common posture of anger and indignation,” wrote Erikson, drawing on Emile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor in Society (Erikson, 1966, p. 67).

For Erikson, a crime wave was a social construct. The Puritan crime wave happened because of pressures on the community—not because of a surge in witchcraft. The Puritans were dealing with the possibility that they might lose their Massachusetts charter in the 1670s and 1680s, Erikson wrote. Conflict within the community, including feuds and disagreements over property, caused more anxiety (Erikson, 1966, pp. 67, 138–139).

Erikson claims that communities create crime waves by punishing actions and people they once tolerated. Although the number of crimes doesn’t necessarily increase, the number of punishments does. In recent years, scholars who studied prisons in the United States have cited Durkheim to explain more recent crime waves. They said that today’s crime waves accelerate when they respond to what Erikson (in considering Puritan Massachusetts) calls “a rash of publicity” (Garland, 1990, 2001, pp. 3, 101; Tonry, 2004, pp. 99, 108, 157, 161).

The Revolution and American Punishment

William Penn and the Prison

Eighteenth- and 19th-century battles for and against corporal punishment were divided according to religion. The inheritors of Calvinism, who tended to believe humans were born sinful, supported corporal and capital punishments. The Quakers, who saw newborns as blank slates, opposed both practices. This division also affected child-rearing concepts and beliefs about school floggings (Wishy, 1968, pp. vii, 11–19, 32–33).

Among the Quakers was William Penn. Penn had spent time at Newgate, the London prison, because he refused to take an oath for religious reasons. When Penn founded Pennsylvania, he ended most forms of public corporal punishment with the exception of floggings. Under Penn, only murderers were subject to execution. He also argued that punishment should simply prevent crime, give victims restitution, and reform prisoners (Lewis, 1967, pp. 10–12).

Penn asked Pennsylvania counties to create a prison: “Build a sufficient house, at least 20 feet square, for restraint, correction, labor, and punishment of all such persons as shall be thereunto committed by law.” Under Penn, the code of laws said that prisons would serve as workhouses for criminals, “vagrants, and loose and idle persons” and would provide free meals and housing (George, Nead, & McCamant, 1879, pp. 14–15, 24–27).

Shortly after independence, Pennsylvania transformed an old jail into the first modern prison, the Philadelphia Walnut Street Prison. In 1776, the Pennsylvania constitution stipulated that the legislature should quickly reform the laws “and invest in punishments less sanguinary” and more proportional to different degrees of wrongdoing. In 1790, a renovation of the prison built small cells for dangerous inmates who were housed in solitary confinement and, as a punitive measure, not allowed to work. The Walnut Street Prison also banned liquor sales within its walls and separated the sexes. These policies set the model for other prisons across the new country (Masur, 1989, pp. 82–83; Meranze, 1996, p. 183).

Also in 1776, a group of Quakers started the Philadelphia Society for Assisting Distressed Prisoners, the first humanitarian prison organization.

Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Solution to Public Punishments

At a 1787 Philadelphia meeting at the home of Benjamin Franklin, Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush read from his essay “An Enquiry into the Effects of Public Punishments upon Criminals, and upon Society.” The essay argues, “All public punishments tend to make bad men worse, and to increase crimes by their influence upon society.” Rush wrote that cruelty in public will harden citizens and “the principle of sympathy” will “cease to act altogether.”

Rush’s solution is the penitentiary. “Let the avenue to this house be rendered difficult and gloomy by mountains or morasses,” Rush wrote in his 1787 description. “Let its doors be of iron; and let the grating, occasioned by opening and shutting them, be encreased by an echo from a neighboring mountain, that shall extend and continue a sound that shall deeply pierce the soul.” Inside, the “officers of the house” should “be strictly forbidden ever to discover any signs of mirth, or even levity, in the presence of the criminals.” The prison’s name should “increase the horror of this abode of discipline and misery” (Rush, 1787, pp. 138, 143, 147).

In the better-known revision of his 1787 essay, published in his 1798 Essays, Literary, Moral, Philosophical, Rush wrote: “Let a large house be erected in a convenient part of the state.” The building’s architecture should encourage contemplation and religious solitude: “Let it be divided into a number of apartments, reserving one large room for public worship. Let cells be provided for the solitary confinement of such persons as are of a refractory temper.” Inmates, Rush wrote, should work silently: “This spot will have a beneficial effect not only upon health but morals, for it will lead them to a familiarity with those pure and natural objects which are calculated to renew the connection of fallen man with his creator” (Rush, 1806, pp. 164–166).

The light and dark images in Rush’s versions of “An Enquiry into Public Punishments” communicate a conflict in American punishment that still exists. Punishment is supposed to simultaneously “terrify” and heal. Nonetheless, prisoner treatment would change in the post-Revolutionary years, as would women’s dress and education, corporal punishments of school kids, and religion—all cultural areas Rush believed should adapt to the new American society.

The revolutionaries targeted punishment because British-imposed humiliations and physical injuries had roused colonial anger. Banning many corporal punishments and limiting the death penalty became patriotic actions (Masur, 1989, pp. 4–5).

The U.S. reappraisal of punishment did not happen in isolation. The founders were Enlightenment thinkers, part of an eighteenth-century international philosophical movement that emphasized rationality, scorned authority based on tradition and nationalistic ideas, and interpreted culture as progressive. Before the American Revolution, John Locke, Voltaire, and Cesare Bonesa, marquis of Beccaria, all argued that punishment could serve a purpose driven by reason, rather than by religion (Beccaria, 1769; Locke, 1824, p. 141).

Punishment and 19th-Century American Culture

Despite hope that penitentiaries would heal criminals, whipping remained common. Five years after Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary received its first inmate, a legislative investigation found severe ill treatment involving “iron gags, strait jackets, the practice of ducking, mad or tranquilizing chairs, severe deprivations of food and more minor punishments . . . in some cases with severe results,” wrote historian Negley Teeters (Boston Prison Discipline Society, 1839, p. 15; Teeters, 1949, p. 295).

The “solitary system” was the penitentiary, which isolated prisoners in cells, in the belief that solitary confinement would help inmates contemplate their lives and change for the better. Within fifteen years of the first penitentiary, prisons characterized by extensive isolation were built in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia (Masur, 1989, pp. 86–87).

But problems arose with extensive solitude. Shortly after an 1821 riot at Newgate Prison in New York State, the state divided out 83 offenders and placed them in solitary. They were to remain silent. One year later, five men had died. Many of the others showed signs of mental illness. One inmate “jumped to his death as soon as his door was opened,” according to the brochure for a museum exhibit on the Auburn prison. The state pardoned those still alive and changed to the “silent system,” or “Auburn system.” The Auburn system placed prisoners in solitary at night but permitted daytime gatherings for meals, labor, and church. Talking was forbidden in this “silent” system. Most of the country quickly imitated Auburn (McHugh, 2003).

Similarities in Punishment Methods and Reforms across 19th-Century Institutions

Nineteenth-century punishments in closed societies such as the military, merchant ships, schools, ships, and plantations can appear strikingly similar. Lancastrian schools, a teaching system that extensively used students as tutors and emphasized extreme restraint, showed up in this country in the 1790s, the same decade that the penitentiary, with its accent on severe confinement, became popular. German universities also used student prisons, called karzer. In the United States, reforms targeted cruelty in many of these institutions at approximately the same time. Harrie Banka, the narrator of a memoir of life in an Indiana prison, reports that his prison ended physical cruelties in the 1860s, the decade of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the formation of the Humane Society of the United States (Banka, 1871, pp. 221–225; Parker, 1912; Lancaster, 1807, pp. 85–95; Weber, 2008, p. 42).

The Reverend Warren Burton and the American antiquarian Alice Morse Earle, writing in the late 19th century, claimed that teachers sometimes used a wood chip stuck between the teeth or split sticks pinched onto kids’ tongues. This treatment of schoolchildren echoes the sticks and gags applied in colonial times to gossips, scolds, blasphemers, and liars (Burton, 1897, p. 44; Earle, 1896, pp. 101–105). Schoolhouses also sometimes contained whipping posts, including one built into the floor in Sunderland, Massachusetts.1 Some schools also contained rooms in the floor or alongside the chimney for solitary confinement (Wishy, 1968).

But new ideas about children emerged. The once-common certainty that they were evil began to shift to what Bernard Wishy (1968) describes as “assumptions of their essential innocence, or at least moral flexibility” (Wishy, 1968, 32–33). Corporal punishment of children lost popularity.

Lyman Cobb published The Evil Tendencies of Corporal Punishment as a Means of Moral Discipline in Families and Schools in 1847. Cobb said that if governments now find hangings less useful, so should teachers and parents realize lashings won’t lead to better-behaved children. He compared the “demoralizing” and “hardening” influence of whippings in the classroom to those of prisoners in front of the general public, “except and only that in the schoolroom, it is in miniature !!!!!” (Cobb, 1847, p. 79).

Other reformers took inspiration from prisons. In 1871, Jacob Abbott suggested that a mother should call out the word “prison” when her child proved disobedient. The child should then spend time alone in a designated part of the house, and consider the misbehavior. After a few minutes, the parent should call out the word “free” (Wishy, 1968, p. 101).

In his 1972–1973 lectures at the College de France, Michel Foucault described the rise of the prison in Europe as involving a similar cultural exchange. In 18th-century England, via the Quakers, Foucault says, came the “first real transplant of Christian morality into the criminal justice system.” And, thanks to industrial production, came “the introduction inside the prison of the general principles governing the economics and politics of work . . . the introduction of time into the capitalist system of power and into the system of penalty” (Foucault, 2015, pp. 89, 11).

Punishment and Progressivism in the 20th Century

As the 20th century opened, a transformation based on science began in the prisons. Progressives believed offenders could improve their characters, and that prisons could help people to change. Like their 19th-century predecessors, the Progressives uncovered maltreatment in prisons, including a pulley rig for stretching bodies and a “water crib” to simulate drowning (Rothman, 1980, pp. 18–21).

Progressives sought direction from science, rather than religious faith or ethics. “America’s cities were afflicted with poverty, disease, overcrowded slums, and crime, and the developing biological and social sciences provided a fresh interpretation of crime’s causes,” write Thomas G. Blomberg and Karol Lucken (2000, p. 63). The Progressive era, approximately 1890–1913, led quickly to long-term changes. Progressives believed in individualized punishment and “rehabilitation.” They thought crime’s sources lay in psychology, or sometimes in genetic influences (Rothman, 1980, pp. 44–45, 69–72; Blomberg & Lucken, 2000, pp. 68–70).

The Progressives believed in altering the length of the punishment according to how much positive change a criminal showed. Those offenders who improved their behaviors would serve shorter terms. The Progressives invented some of the systems that still affect sentence length, including parole, indeterminate sentences, and probation (Rothman, 1980).

But scholarly exploration of just how such practices worked by the 1930s is illustrative. California and Texas had strikingly different prison systems, with segregated cellblocks in California. Texas shunned parole, while California made frequent use of it. But rehabilitation had serious flaws no matter where it was practiced. “White privilege,” as Ethan Blue terms it in Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons (2012), meant that in Texas, for instance, an ideal inmate who seemed open to rehabilitation by training in a trade tended to be a Caucasian man who spoke English. Mexican and black prisoners “were rendered invisible and silent in the redemptive narrative of progressive prison reform and training” (p. 142).

And, despite its aims, Progressivism did not end physical punishments. Prisons continued to use devices such as the straitjacket (Whipple, 1927). Researcher Mabel Elliott (1947) wrote that an Attorney General’s Survey of Release Procedures discovered “corporal punishment was in practice in at least 26 prisons in 1939, and whipping with a strap was allowed in the following states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia. The number of strokes permitted varied from one to 25. Colorado also permitted ball and chain and cold baths” (Elliott, 1947, p. 41).

The Southern United States had its own version of Progressivism, visible in the Robert E. Burns autobiography I Am a Fugitive from the Georgia Chain Gang! and the related film. “The purpose of I Am a Fugitive, like most muckraking accounts of Southern prisons, was to suggest how out of step with modern life Dixie remained in the 1930s,” wrote Alex Lichtenstein (Lichtenstein, 1996, p. 16).

While the Southern lease system (which rented out prisoners on work crews) had serious faults, wrote Lichtenstein, it is often misunderstood. “The chain gangs which built the roads of the 20th-century South became an enduring symbol of Southern backwardness, brutality, and racism; in fact, they were the embodiment of the Progressive ideals of Southern modernization, penal reform, and racial moderation,” wrote Lichtenstein. The convict leasing system could be brutal, he said, but that resulted from “the process of modernization itself” (Lichtenstein, 1996, p. 16).

Contract labor emphasized making money over punishing criminals. One warden “noted that the contractors had a habit of overworking the convicts to the point of exhaustion or disease, returning the sick convicts to the penitentiary, and then demanding fresh, healthy replacements to fill their quota of leased laborers,” wrote Lichtenstein. “Sixteen of the 211 convicts working on this railroad died between May and December 1868.” Lichtenstein wrote that black prisoners suffered from corporal punishment the most often while on the work crews (Lichtenstein, 1996, p. 51).

Housing was poor. Some prisoners slept in “a cage-like cell, mounted on wheels, so that it can be moved from place to place as the camp follows the jobs. The cage is about 13 feet long, eight feet high, seven feet wide, and looks more like a cage for ferocious animals than anything else in the world, except that the convict-animal cage is not gilded as are those of the animals in a circus.” The cage on wheels housed about 20 men, wrote Walter Wilson (1933) in his exploration of the convict work crews. Wilson writes that the men slept on “a piece of coarse, dirty cloth stretched over lumpy straw, usually alive with bugs.” Wilson also reports that the men were frequently chained together during sleep. (Wilson, 1933, p. 71)

Notwithstanding the many problems in 20th-century punishment, by the latter part of the century, most acknowledged that corporal punishment had all but vanished (Garland, 1990, p. 235). The prison system had solidly moved toward Progressive-style rehabilitation.

The Turn Against Rehabilitation

1970s criticism of rehabilitation began among the Quakers and the inheritors of Progressivism. Describing self-maiming and striking prisoners, a 1971 publication of the American Friends Service Committee (p. vi) said, “These upheavals warn the public that prisoners will no longer submit to whatever is done to them in the name of ‘treatment’ or ‘rehabilitation.’” The writers accuse past Quakers of error, saying reformers invented the prison because they hoped to end “the cruelty and futility of” corporal punishments and executions. But “This two-hundred-year-old experiment has failed” (American Friends Service Committee, 1971, pp. 33, 85).

The authors of the America Friends Service Committee publication appeared to believe their revolution against rehabilitation might end prisons: “We are convinced that it would be far better to tear down all jails now than to perpetuate the inhumanity and horror being carried on in society’s name behind prison walls.” Other authors of the time, including investigative reporter Jessica Mitford, called for the end of prisons (American Friends Service Committee, 1971, p. 23; Mitford, 1974, pp. 7, 298).

A critique of rehabilitation came next. Sociologist Robert Martinson reviewed 231 studies in the liberal journal Public Interest. His 1974 publication, “What Works—Questions and Answers about Prison Reform,” said: “It is possible to give a rather bald summary of our findings: With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism”(Martinson, 1974).

Martinson retracted this study in 1979 (Martinson, 1979). But a new, harsher way of thinking about crimes and criminals had become prominent, and the retraction had little effect.

Retributive punishment philosophy took the place of rehabilitative thought. In 1975, the political scientist James Q. Wilson (1975) wrote, “Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people.” Wilson saw dire consequences arising from rehabilitative punishment. Because “we have trifled with the wicked, made sport of the innocent, and encouraged the calculators,” he wrote, “justice suffers, and so do we all” (Wilson, 1975, p. 209).

Emphasizing evil, President Ronald Reagan described a “stark, staring face—a face that belongs to a frightening reality of our time: the face of a human predator . . . Nothing in nature is more cruel or more dangerous.” Wilson echoed Reagan, writing, “We are terrified by the prospect of innocent people being gunned down at random, without warning, and almost without motive, by youngsters who afterwards show us the blank, unremorseful face of a feral, pre-social being” (Beckett, 1997, p. 47; Garland, 2001, pp. 136, 256; Wilson, 1995, p. 492).

Describing a “rising wave of superpredators,” Princeton Professor John Dilulio appealed to the media, which repeated the phrase throughout the mid-1990s. James Allen Fox, a professor at Boston’s Northeastern University predicted a “teenage time bomb” and a “blood bath of teenage violence.”

Time magazine drew on Fox in 1996 to publish “Now for the Bad News: A Teenage Timebomb” (Time, 1996; cited in Templeton, 1998, p. 19). Newsweek (1996) proclaimed in the same month, “‘Superpredators’ Arrive” and questioned, “Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?” In response to two boys, ages 12 and 11, who had dropped five-year-old Eric Morse from the 14th floor of a Chicago building, Newsweek explained, a new law would allow minors “as young as ten to be sent to juvenile prison” (Newsweek, 1996).

Analyzing this turn toward harsh language about criminality, sociologist David Garland (2001) wrote:

In this inflammatory rhetoric, and in the real policies that flow from it, offenders are treated as a different species of threatening, violent individuals for whom we can have no sympathy and for whom there is no effective help . . . The public knows, without having to be told, that these “superpredators” and high-rate offenders are young minority males, caught up in the underclass world of crime, drugs, broken families, and welfare dependency. The only practical and rational response to such types, as soon as they offend if not before, is to have them “taken out of circulation” for the protection of the public. Many of the most politicized penalties of recent years—mandatory sentences, incapacitation, the revived death penalty—are designed to do precisely this and little else.

(p. 136)

The hyper-focus on crime continued through the 1990s. According to analysis by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, more than 50% of 1996 stories about youth in local news described violence and more than two-thirds of the news reports on violence focused on kids. The highlighting of young criminals conflicted with statistics indicating 57% of violent crimes were committed by adults older than 25 and 80% by people older than 18 (Dorfman, Woodruff, Chavez, & Wallack, 1997; Templeton, 1998, p. 19).

As one influential scholar has noted, in America, punishment is populist. “The special character of American criminal justice lies in the high degree of direct and indirect popular influence over its administration,” Samuel Walker (1980) wrote in Popular Justice (Walker, 1980, pp. 3–4).

Popular influence can be energetic and democratic. But historically, suggests the work of Walker, it has some ugly consequences. Vigilantism, including lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th century United States, provides one example. But Walker is concerned about a larger kind of vigilantism linked to uncritical public opinion. “Many of the worst abuses of official criminal-justice agencies represent a form of ‘delegated vigilantism,’” Walker wrote. “The public has tended to condone, if not encourage, police brutality directed against the outcasts of society or the mistreatment of inmates in penal institutions” (Walker, 1980, p. 4).

The 1970s as a Transformative Decade in American Punishment and Culture

In Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, Philip Jenkins (2006) posits the 1970s as a critical decade of change. The disturbance led to popular acceptance of inherent wickedness not in behaviors or social conditions but in specific groups of people (Jenkins, 2006).

Beginning shortly after 1975, and partially in response to U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, an “anti-sixties” reaction created a “dramatic . . . break in American history and culture.” Widespread “pessimism” combined with rejection of rational explanations for social conditions. “At home and abroad, the post-1975 public was less willing to see social dangers in terms of historical forces, instead preferring a strict moralistic division: problems were a matter of evil, not dysfunction.” Belief in evil affected discussions of foreign policy and war, U.S. poverty, drug taking, terrorism, and crime. Evil was also frequently used to describe children (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 6, 11, 18–19, 194).

For instance, “The Youth Crime Plague” (1977), the Time magazine cover article for July 11, 1977 leaves aside any rational explanations for youth delinquency: “How can such sadistic acts—expressions of what moral philosophers would call sheer evil—be explained satisfactorily by poverty and deprivation? What is it in our society that produces mindless rage? Or has the whole connection between crime and society been exaggerated? Some of the usual explanations seem pretty limp” (Time, 1977; cited in Jenkins, 2006, p. 25).

A February 27, 1978, Newsweek article bore the headline “The Criminal Mind.” However, the “criminal mind” in the article was not a former convict, but a kid: “Some kids are just bad. They lie and cheat and skip school; they try to bully their parents, rejecting love if it is offered.

When these children grow up, they rob, embezzle, rape and kill. Crime turns them on.” These children don’t have mental illness, said a novel theory, “they are simply wicked” (Newsweek, 1978; cited in Jenkins, 2006, p. 91).

Jenkins remarks, “Generation X children, born in the mid-1960s, entered their teens and were regularly depicted by the media as dangerous and uncontrollable.” Popular media portrayed the adolescents as young criminals. “In 1977–1978, it was children of 13 and 14 who were at the center of the new anti-drug panic, presumed to be the targets of underage vice rackets; the pressing criminal danger was believed to be remorseless violent offenders of 15 or 16” (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 18, 194).

The Beginnings of Popular Culture in a Gallows Sermon

Author Daniel A. Cohen (2006) wrote that popular culture has from its beginnings in 1674 linked strongly to punishment. He places its origins in scaffold sermons, beginning with the American colonial preacher Cotton Mather. As Cohen shows in Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674–1860, execution sermons and broadsides were quickly printed and sold. It was the beginning of American crime literature, he wrote (D. A. Cohen, 2006, pp. x, ix).

Noting that “perhaps more than ever before, the subjects of crime and punishment dominate American popular culture,” Cohen sees many echoes of early scaffold popular culture in today’s shows. “Some modern television writers may be less conscientious than Puritan ministers in fitting morals to their stories, but most still at least go through the motions,” Cohen wrote (D. A. Cohen, 2006, p. 252).

Historians claim that ostensibly secular movies about possessed children, such as The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie, and Rosemary’s Baby reveal late 1960s and 1970s American fears. Many 1970s horror movies depict serial killers with the supernatural ability to reawaken after death or to seem oblivious to injury that would destroy a mortal, wrote Jenkins (Jenkins, 2006, p. 4).

In literature, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, published in 1979, characterizes Gary Gilmore—the first person executed after U.S. reinstitution of capital punishment in 1976—as evil in the eyes of his friends and family members, even from childhood, though other passages reveal his capacity for thoughtfulness and complex emotion (Mailer, 1979, p. 106).

In 1974, the year of Gary Gilmore’s murders, Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson, crowded theaters. Audiences cheered when Bronson killed muggers, a phenomenon that concerned members of the media (Jenkins, 2006, p. 138).

Religious leaders gave speeches about the Devil. “What are the Church’s greatest needs at the present time?” asked Pope Paul VI in “Confronting the Devil’s Power,” his November 15, 1972, address. “Don’t be surprised at Our answer and don’t write it off as simplistic or even superstitious: one of the Church’s greatest needs is to be defended against the evil we call the Devil,” he said (Pope Paul VI, 1972).

In 1975 Billy Graham published his bestselling book Angels: God’s Secret Agents.2 Graham advises readers to visit university libraries, book shops, and airport newsstands. “You will be confronted by shelves and tables packed with books about the Devil, Satan worship, and demon possession.” He also cites TV and movies about evil and “as many as one in four hard rock pop songs,” including “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, writing, “Some polls indicate that 70% of Americans believe in a personal Devil” (Graham, 1975, pp. 5–8).

The United States also tilted toward fundamentalist Christianity, which Jenkins understands as an anxious reaction (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 5–6, 140–143). The allure of conservative Christianity helped the U.S. political right to succeed, reveals Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (2001). “The emphasis on patriarchal family values, concern with ‘evil’—crime, abortion, pornography—and the critique of ‘centralized power’ all went along with conservative ideas.” The routine characterization of societal problems as “evil” contributed to conservative Christianity’s appeal and “provided comfort in a harsh world without challenging the underpinnings” of middle-class lifestyles. “They won adherents exactly because they failed to account for the material causes for the social breakdown of families, for drugs, and for social violence, namely, the free market and the deep class divisions it generated” (McGirr, 2001, pp. 4–5, 225–226).

The cultural and political shifts Jenkins and McGirr describe coincided with a stark change in our prisons that, among other indicators, is visible in the statistics. Our prison population started to climb in the mid-1970s. With the exception of a few slight dips, it has maintained that upward trajectory for more than four decades.

A rise in punishment technologies paralleled the cultural turn toward retribution, including increasing use of stun technologies and restraints. The stun belt was an electronic shocking device fastened to a person’s waist. The belt allowed guards to shock prisoners with eight-second, 50,000-volt stuns from as far away as 300 feet (Cusac, 2009, pp. 212–221).

The belt was put to questionable use. Amnesty International reported in 1999 that the state of Louisiana repeatedly put stun belts on HIV-postive minimum-security prisoners because of their HIV status. The human-rights organization also said that Caucasian guards from Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison shocked African-American inmates while calling them racist names (Amnesty International, 1999).

In a report on torture by electronic weaponry published in 1997, Amnesty International listed the United States along with Algeria and China in a section titled “Recent Cases of the Use of Electroshock Weapons for Torture or Ill-Treatment.” The group said the United States had become a principal exporter of stun weaponry. Amnesty said the devices were not safe and had ended up with torturers (Amnesty International, 1999).

A few years later, high-watt Tasers became common in the United States. Human rights organizations, physicians, and journalists all questioned the safety of Tasers. The New York Times reported in 2004 that at least 50 people had died after receiving a Taser shock. By March 2006, Amnesty International had counted 156 U.S. deaths from Taser shock over half a decade. (Berenson, 2004; Amnesty International, 2006; Associated Press, 2006).

In addition to electroshock weapons, 1990s prisons and jails made extensive use of restraints, including one device called a restraint chair. It immobilized prisoners and mental patients, using cuffs and belts to secure the arms and legs (Cusac, 2009, pp. 230–241).

The International Context

While imprisonment rates have generally increased in Western democracies since the 1970s when the United States began its own upward trajectory, there are marked differences between countries. The differences appear connected to political and economic structures. Michael Cavadina and James Dignan (2006) do a quantitative and qualitative comparison among some Western democracies in Penal Systems: A Comparative Approach. They find that political economies strongly influence imprisonment rates, with neo-liberal economies (the United States, South Africa, England and Wales, Australia, and New Zealand) having the highest rates. Conservative-corporatist political economies came next (Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands), followed by the social democratic economies (Sweden and Finland), and finally the oriental corporatist (Japan). Cavadino and Dignan characterize political economies according to such factors as the wealth gap, the strength of the welfare state, differences in status, how inclusive the societies are, how individualistic the societies are, and political type. Political economies not only influence prison population trends but also punishment practices such as privatization and the age at which people are held criminally responsible, Cavadino and Dignan found (2006, pp. 14–36).

Similarly, Tapio Lappi-Seppälä (2011) of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Helsinki found that “moderate penal policies have their roots in a consensual and corporatist political culture, in high levels of social trust and political legitimacy, and in a strong welfare state; and that more punitive policies that make more use of imprisonment are to be found in countries where these characteristics are less in evidence” (Lappi-Seppälä, 2011, p. 303).

In The Prisoners’ Dilemma Nicola Lacey (2008) links steeper increases in imprisonment rates to majoritarian, winner-take-all political systems with large numbers of independent voters who float between parties. These situations lead politicians to appeal to independent voters with tough-on-crime policies. In liberal and individualistic societies, such as the United States and Britain, the loss of many manufacturing jobs and the rollback of the welfare state led to a large underclass beginning in the 1970s, she writes. The combination politicized criminal justice and made tough-on-crime policies likely. By contrast, writes Lacey, less flexible systems, and particularly systems with proportional representation and coalition governments, lead to compromise and more stability in prison policies and populations (Lacey, 2008, pp. 86, 109, 122, 131, 175, 201).

In his study of the death penalty, David Garland (2010) shows that the U.S. tendency for democratic decision-making at the local level, for small constituencies that influence punishment practices, and for local political actions independent from the federal government, has helped both to perpetuate the death penalty in the United States, as well to allow some states (such as Michigan and Wisconsin) to abolish the death penalty as early as the 19th century. Garland argues that the same political forces led to 19th- and early 20th-century lynchings in the American South (Garland, 2010, pp. 36–38).

Pop Culture and American Punishment

Links between street crimes, punishments, and popular culture started with Cotton Mather publishing sermons he gave before public hangings (D. A. Cohen, 2006, p. x). As with that early popular culture, reality had a place in 20th-century police shows. Radio programs about crime in the early 20th century contained anecdotes from real police reports. Early television followed suit (Stark, 1997, pp. 32, 245; Fishman & Cavender, 1998, p. 9).

Dragnet, an NBC radio show, used Los Angeles Police Department files. The show’s realism, featuring always-on-the-job Joe Friday, was echoed in many later shows that featured professional police, including S.W.A.T., Hill Street Blues, CSI, and Cops (Stark, 1997, pp. 32–35; Fishman & Cavender, 1998, p. 9).

Friday’s professionalism was a new trend in American dramas, as the news media recognized. “The flood of Dragnet fan mail suggests that the U.S. completely forgets that it is a nation of incipient cop haters when its eyes are glued on Webb’s show,” noted a 1954 cover story on the series published in Time. The United States, according to the newsweekly, “has gained a new appreciation of the underpaid, longsuffering, ordinary policeman,” as well as “its first rudimentary understanding of real-life law enforcement” (Time, 1954; cited in Stark, 1997, p. 34). Shows prior to Dragnet, such as The Shadow and the Green Hornet of the 1930s and 1940s, featured superheroes who outdid incompetent police at their job. However, as scholars have noted, this construct emphasizes the superhero, whether Batman, Superman, Spiderman, or Wonder Woman, as a vigilante hero. (Cusac, 2009, p. 189; Phillips & Strobel, 2006, p. 1)

Following many years of low crime came The Andy Griffith Show, a comedy about a sheriff in a Southern town, which was in production during much of the 1960s (Boddy, 1997, pp. 162, 176).

In the 1970s, Barney Miller continued the Andy Griffith emphasis on the gently paternalistic police with the ability to transform lives for the better. But the precinct moved from rural, white Mayberry to multiethnic New York City beset with low-level criminals (Cusac, 2009, p. 191).

Crime rose in the 1970s, and television responded with action shows, including S.W.A.T., Police Woman, Charlie’s Angels, and Starsky and Hutch. Characterized by energetic chases after bad actors, the shows emphasize danger. Even so, the shows tended toward optimism they shared with Dragnet, with an aim of catching the crook before the crime. The stars frequently apprehended criminals who did little real damage. New, rehabilitative policing methods aired in shows such as The Rookies and The Mod Squad during the 1960s and 1970s (Cusac, 2009, p. 192).

Liberal police strategies, seen as the innovative work of young cops in The Rookies, were by 1981 the dominant policing model in Captain Frank Furillo’s New York City. But in Hill Street Blues, the crooks seem to be winning, and there is serious disagreement among cops about whether crime really comes out of social struggle. The pilot implies again and again that liberal policing can’t stem the crime surge (Stark, 1997, pp. 35–36, 237–242).

Crime television shifted hard with Homicide: Life on the Street. From 1993 through the first decade of the 21st century, crime TV focused on murder. In earlier decades, murder was one of many possible TV crimes. The attention to murder happened during two decades with a plummeting violent crime rate that included many fewer murders (Cusac, 2009, p. 192).

But fear of crime spiked. A Los Angeles Times poll from 1994, indicated Orange County residents called crime the number one worry, a fear that transcended race and class. The paper explained that crime in the region had fallen for ten years (Weikel, 1994).

2005 had the least crime on a national level in more than three decades. It was also a year of wildly popular crime shows, and many of them. Lester Moonves, CEO and chairman of CBS called the early 21st century “the golden age” of crime drama (Frutkin, 2005). The TV crime surge resembled the crime rate less than it did the prison population—which had ballooned.

Reality Television and the Culture of Punishment

A 1995 study of audiences for the TV show Cops revealed that viewers regarded the show as more realistic than other types of policing shows. Other studies show that viewers see reality shows as providing information, rather than entertainment. Audiences interpret crime-based reality programing as similar to the news (Oliver & Armstrong, 1995).

Cops producers suggested the show represented reality. “It’s unpredictable, it’s immediate, it’s raw, it’s real,” said John Langley to the Palm Beach Post. “You can’t fake that. To this day, there’s no other show on television that has no host, no narrator, no script and no actors” (Thompson, 2002).

Cops altered the ways that people saw police officers. The public responds differently to police contact thanks to reality shows, one ethnography suggested. An officer in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, asks a man wanted by the police, “Buddy, why did you let us in? You could have just shut up and not answered the door.” The man said, “I thought I had to let the cops in.” After booking, the police officer said, “Thank God [the public watches] too many Cops shows—[TV cops] never walk away from a door” (Perlmutter, 2000, p. 81).

Reality shows are in fact highly edited, and some research suggests that reality programming focused on crime may do harm. In a 1998 study, researchers discovered, “These shows portray a world that is much more crime infested than is actually the case, they cast people of color in the role of the villain, and they are perceived as realistic by many of their viewers” (Oliver & Armstrong, 1998, p. 30).

Local Newscasts and the Culture of Punishment

Many Americans trust their local newscasts, though such trust is on the decline. “In 1985, a third of the public (34%) said they could believe ‘all or most’ of what they saw on local television news,” reports the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “In 2002, that had declined to one-fourth of the public (26%)” (Pew, 2005, p. 6).

The newscasts are repetitive. “The approach begins with a natural desire to hook viewers at the start,” according to a five-year study by the Project for Excellence, published in 2005. “That is done by putting stories that are supposedly ‘live,’ eye-catching, and alarming at the top of the newscast” (Pew, 2005).

The “surprisingly static, formulaic structure” leads to distortions in newsworthiness. Stories concerning “public safety” were 36% of all news items but amounted to almost two-thirds (61%) of lead stories in broadcasts. “Indeed, 13% of all newscasts began with three crime stories in a row, back to back to back” (Pew, 2005).

In this way, TV news wandered into distorted presentations of reality. From 1993 to 1996, the national murder rate dropped by 20%. During the same period, stories about murders on the ABC, NBC, and CBS network newscasts rose by 721%. “Since 1993 crime has been the most heavily covered topic on the network evening news with 7,448 stories, or 1 out of every 7 stories on all topics,” said the Center for Media and Public Affairs in a 1997 report (Center for Media and Public Affairs, 1997).3

The crime rate was falling, but most Americans didn’t perceive it that way. “How did it come about that by mid-decade [of the 1990s] 62% of us described ourselves as ‘truly desperate’ about crime—almost twice as many as in the late 1980s, when crime rates were higher?” asks Barry Glassner in The Culture of Fear (Glassner, 1999, p. xi).

“Fear is one of the few things that Americans share,” social scientist David Altheide said in Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis (2002). Altheide considered national TV newscasts and city papers. The word “fear” in the Los Angeles Times increased by 64% from 1985 through 1994, and by 173% in ABC evening news from 1990 to 1994. “The use of fear in headlines and text increased from 30 to 150% for most newspapers analyzed over a seven- to ten-year period, with 1994 the peak year,” Altheide wrote. “Many of these increases were associated with more emphases on crime reporting” (pp. 38, 65). Altheide also saw increases in the word “victim,” which, he claims, was becoming a status identity (Altheide, 2002).

Corporal Punishment of Children and Criminals in the Christian Right

Some sectors of the American Christian Right express vocal fondness for tough-on-crime policies, and at the same time advocate corporal punishment of children. Their beliefs often echo the Puritans. In his biography of Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden (2003) wrote, “Much of Puritan upbringing was designed to teach children to recognize how insecure their lives were. Every child knew of brothers, sisters, cousins, or friends who had suddenly died.” As Marsden explains, the emphasis on turning infant souls towards God sometimes led to beatings: “If there is an emphasis that appears difficult, or harsh, or overstated in Edwards, often the reader can better appreciate his perspective by asking the question: ‘How would this issue look if it really were the case that bliss or punishment for literal eternity was at stake?’” (Marsden, 2003, p. 5, 20).

Late 20th-century Christian parenting guides such as God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod (Tomczak, 1982) and the writings of Dr. James Dobson (Dobson, 1992; Dobson, 2001) advocated spanking as a way to save children’s souls. Some authors, such as Bruce A. Ray in Withhold Not Correction and Beverly LaHaye suggested such whippings will also control crime (Ray, 1978; LaHaye, 1977). In How to Develop Your Child’s Temperament (1977), LaHaye wrote, “Every child has the potential of becoming a delinquent and a criminal when he is left to his own ways without instruction and correction” (p. 2).

“If a strong-willed child can seemingly withstand the rod with a grin on his face, he poses a dangerous problem,” wrote Richard Fugate (1980). “His resistance to authority and strong will suggest that he could be a potential criminal” (Fugate, 1980, pp. 149–150).

Some conservative Christian leaders also advocated corporal punishment of criminals in the 1970s through the 1990s. Pat Robertson proposed stoning people who believed in UFOs. Less well known groups like the Reconstructionists advocated execution of disobedient children by stoning (IFAS, 1997; Olson, 1998).

Harold Grasmick (1992), a researcher into corporal punishment and religious beliefs at the University of Oklahoma, wrote: “Our findings raise the possibility that religious beliefs are at the root of a wide range of calls for harshness toward those who would break the rules” (Grasmick, Morgan, & Kennedy, 1992, p. 185).

In a study of Protestant fundamentalism and public policy toward criminals, Grasmick and another group of researchers discovered “that religious affiliation is a significant predictor of retributiveness, and that, to a great extent, the effect occurs because fundamentalist Protestants are more inclined to interpret the Bible literally” (pp. 38–39). Grasmick predicted that the trend towards harsh punishments would be difficult to shift because of its origins in religious beliefs. (Grasmick, Davenport, Chamlin, & Bursick, 1992)

Punishment and Cultural Concepts of Childhood

As the examples of whipping posts, restraints, and confinement boxes in schools suggest, children have been treated in ways that parallel punishments of criminals. In recent decades, student rule breakers have frequently received discipline not from teachers or administrators, but from police officers who patrol school hallways.

Like policy officers on city streets, some school officers face scrutiny for their actions. In 2015, a school officer in Columbia, South Carolina was fired after a video went viral of him slamming a female student to the ground after she refused to leave her chair (CBS, 2015). While this is a recent incident, it is hardly the first of its kind. In 2007, The New York Times printed an editorial about New York City school officers. The police had controlled disorder in the schools, said the Times. However, there were multiple reports that New York City public school students were “belittled, shouted at, abused, and inappropriately touched by police officers and the school security workers they supervise.” While Bob Herbert, the Times columnist, had gathered the stories, he was hardly the only critic of police in the New York City schools. The New York Civil Liberties Union “describes students being roughed up for minor infractions—like eating in the hallways or failing to have a hall pass—and even baited into fights by security personnel,” reported the Times editorial. The New York City police claimed these allegations were untrue (“Making sure the protectors protect,” 2007).

But The New York Times was not the first major newspaper to condemn officer treatment of students. “Security guards at schools should not rough up kids as if they were hardened criminals,” Robert L. Jamieson, Jr. wrote in 2004 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Students, even unruly ones, shouldn’t be shackled like dogs” (Jamieson, 2004).

In recent decades, courts began giving more children adult sentences rather than diverting kids into juvenile justice institutions. In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, requesting the commission rule that giving children prison sentences of mandatory life without parole was a breach of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The petition observed that more than 2,000 children had received sentences of life in prison without parole (Watt, Macpherson, Labelle, Beeson, 2006).

Solitary Confinement and Supermax Prisons

The U.S. also experimented again with solitary confinement, this time at super-maximum security prisons where inmates spend 23 hours a day in isolation.

But, like the extensive solitary confinement at the 18th- and 19th-century penitentiaries, the life of isolation at the Supermaxes resulted in concerns that such punishment contributed to mental illness. “There are few if any forms of imprisonment that appear to produce so much psychological trauma and in which so many symptoms of psychopathology are manifested,” wrote UC Santa Cruz professor of psychology Craig Haney in 2003. “The findings are robust” (Haney, 2003, p. 125).

In 2001, inmates at the Boscobel, Wisconsin Supermax, claiming the facility was an “incubator of psychosis,” sued the state. They said that mental illness at the prison was “endemic.” A judge’s order led to the removal of all inmates with mental illness. Court-appointed attorney Ed Garvey said that was “about one-third of the prisoners.” Some of those removed were also juveniles (Callender, 2001; Jones’el v. Berge, 2002, Cusac, 2009, p. 243).

Abu Ghraib and the Culture of Punishment

In the weeks after September 11, 2001, some American writers and pundits advocated torture. These included Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, who wrote, “In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to . . . torture.” Although his essay equivocated and did not demand outright torture, it asked, “Couldn’t we at least subject them to psychological torture? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings?”(Alter, 2001).

On CNN’s Crossfire, Tucker Carlson said torture was “bad,” but “some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil” (Rutenberg, 2001).

During those early months after the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration rounded up Muslim and Arab immigrants, called the “September 11 detainees.” Many say they were placed in solitary confinement, beaten, or deprived of food, blankets, and toilet paper. Amnesty International sent Attorney General John Ashcroft a November 2001 note about its concern “that many of those detained during the 11 September sweeps are held in harsh conditions, some of which may violate international standards for humane treatment.” The letter described “allegations of physical and verbal abuse of detainees by guards, and failure to protect detainees from abuses by other inmates” (Cusac, 2009, pp. 245–246; Amnesty International, 2002).

Traci Billingsley, a spokesperson for the United States Bureau of Prisons, said in 2002, “All inmates are treated in a fair, impartial manner and are treated in a humane way.” County jails also disputed the claims. The Bush administration prevented Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from meeting with and interviewing detainees for months (Cusac, 2009, p. 246).

But in 2003 the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice stated in a report, “the evidence indicates a pattern of abuse by some correctional officers against some September 11 detainees, particularly during the first months after the attacks” at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. “Most detainees we interviewed at the MDC alleged that MDC staff physically abused them” (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, 2003).

In May 2004, the magazine the New Yorker published Seymour M. Hersh’s story of torture and at Abu Ghraib prison, a jail in Iraq run by the American military. Sixty Minutes II aired the allegations, accompanied by photos, a week earlier (Hersh, 2004; Leung, 2004).

Many of the Abu Ghraib allegations have close and recent parallels in U.S. domestic prison treatment of inmates. These include threats of electrocution and mock execution, inmates threatened with dogs, prisoners dressed in women’s underwear, prisoners restrained in uncomfortable positions for long periods; exposure of prisoners to extreme heat and sun, sexual mistreatment, forcing inmates to urinate on themselves and soil themselves; and inmates placed naked in restraints. Two of the Abu Ghraib guards had worked in the United States as corrections officers (Cusac, 2009, pp. 249–252).

Recent Religious Forces and Contemporary American Punishment Trends

Christians have long cared about prisons and about treatment of inmates. This abiding interest has held true in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, prompted public discussion with her 1993 book Dead Man Walking and the popular film of the same name. She also advised Pope John Paul II about capital punishment in the United States. Prejean has taken strong stands against torture while at the same time speaking sympathetically about the experiences of crime victims and their families (Prejean, 2004, pp. 113–118, 129–130).

Pope John Paul II paid a visit to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1999. In that city, he spoke to 20,000 people, calling capital punishment “cruel and unnecessary” (Feister, 1999). The Catholic Church has taken an official stand against the death penalty.

The Quakers continue to visit prisons and to look into the physical treatment of prisoners. In 2003, the Evangelical Lutherans adopted a social policy resolution on prison reform (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2003). Beginning in 2003, the Unitarians spent years considering prison reform (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005).

Under the influence of Prison Fellowship, a group founded by Chuck Colson, the former Nixon special counsel and former prison inmate, members of today’s Christian Right have also advocated for the physical safety of prisoners, changes to sentencing, and many other prison reforms. This is a shift in stance, as many conservative Christian leaders expressed tough on crime beliefs in the late 20th century. The right-wing prison reformers combine political and religious influence on prison culture (Cusac, 2009, p. 256; Cusac, 2015).

Since 2011 when he first took office, Republican Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia has started accountability courts for veterans who commit crimes, as well as for offenders with mental health issues. Deal has also brought religious groups into the prisons, built up both the high school education and vocational training in the prisons, and decentralized Georgia’s juvenile justice institutions (Cusac, 2015).

The reforms are a big shift for Georgia, which has a history of tough-on-crime policies. The criminal justice reforms in Georgia have attracted media attention, but other Republican-led reforms have also won in both Southern and Northern conservative states (Cusac, 2015).

Conservative individuals and organizations that have sought to influence sentencing and prison reform include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Charles Koch Institute, and Right on Crime, among others. Conservatives embrace prison reform from multiple perspectives, including conservative Christianity, fiscal conservatism, and libertarianism (Cusac, 2015).

Critics of the conservative movement for prison reform caution that a backlash is possible. Marie Gottschalk, the author of Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, expresses the concern that many of the Republican reforms—which tend to target recidivism, reentry preparation, and reinvesting prison funds into the community—are slight in actual effect. Gottschalk (2015) warns of a “problem with this strategy”:

The dogged pursuit of the three R’s—that is, reentry, justice reinvestment, and reducing the recidivism rate—may actually be coming at the cost of fortifying both the carceral state and the sharp right turn in American politics over the long term. This is a sadly familiar historical pattern. Many previous bursts of penal reform optimism ended up shifting penal policies in a more punitive direction.

(p. 15)

And there are other criticisms. “For all the talk about the dawning of a new age in penal reform with the emergence of the justice reinvestment and Right on Crime movements, the actual impact of these initiatives on the reach of the carceral state has been remarkably modest,” Gottschalk wrote (Gottschalk, 2015, p. 99).

A 2015 Sentencing Project Report (2015) notes that, “The overall pace of change, though, is quite modest given the scale of incarceration. The total U.S. prison population declined by 2.4% since 2009” (The Sentencing Project, 2015, p. 1).

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

The United States now has the highest imprisonment rate in the West, and according to Michael Tonry (2004) that rate is “seven to 12 times higher than most” (p. 3). During the 1930s, the United States imprisoned people at rates that resembled, or were lower than, the rates in most European countries. Those rates stayed low until the mid-1970s. Of the enormous increases in prison populations, Tonry wrote, “Ordinary Americans made these things happen. Elected politicians proposed policies and enacted laws, but they would not have done it if they believed American voters would disapprove . . . The public could not have been led someplace it was unwilling to go” (pp. 3–4). Tonry faults “moral panics,” or widespread social concern disconnected from facts. Tonry’s idea draws on a concept developed by Stanley Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics. “For two decades, Americans thought they wanted single-minded toughness and they got it. The question is why they thought they wanted it,” wrote Tonry. “‘Moral panics’ are part of the answer. They typically occur when horrifying or notorious events galvanize public emotion, and produce concern, sympathy, emotion, and overreaction. Examples in recent years include the kidnapping of Polly Klaas in California and the crack overdose death of Len Bias in Maryland.” Moral panics, he said, can prompt punitive lawmaking. “Results included, respectively, California’s three-strikes law and the federal 100-to-1 crack cocaine sentencing law.” Moral panics have also had a much broader effect on American punishment: “In recent decades, moral panics have magnified the effects of longer term changes in values and attitudes” (Tonry, 2004, p. 5; S. Cohen, 2002).

As political scientist Marie Gottschalk (2006) wrote, “With each campaign for law and order and against certain crimes and vices in earlier eras, state capacity accrued, as evidenced, for example, by the growth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the federal prison system, and by the militarization of crime control.” In this way, “the institutional capacity of the government expanded over time” (p. 7). Recently, though, there has been a “dramatic and unprecedented transformation of penal policies in a more punitive direction.” This shift resulted from a new coalition of activists that in the 1970s “began to mobilize around criminal justice issues.” In addition to conservatives, “what has been overlooked is the role of other groups, some of them identified with progressive and liberal causes” (Gottschalk, 2006, p. 8).

Gottschalk uses the victims’ rights movement as an example:

Being for victims and against offenders became a simple equation that helped knit together politically disparate groups ranging from the more traditional, conservative, law-and-order constituencies mobilized around punitive policies like “three-strikes-and-you’re-out,” to women’s groups organized against rape and domestic violence, to gay and lesbian groups advocating for hate crimes legislation, to the Million Moms pushing for gun control.

(pp. 8, 32)

Feminists focused on abuse and rape joined, too. “By framing the rape issue around ‘horror stories,’ they fed into the victims’ movement’s compelling image of a society held hostage to a growing number of depraved, marauding criminals” (p. 133). They advocated for the 1994 Violence against Women Act, a piece of the 1994 omnibus anticrime bill, which “allocated nearly $10 billion for new prison construction, expanded the death penalty to cover more than fifty federal crimes, and added a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ provision mandating life imprisonment for federal offenders convicted of three violent offenses” (p. 152). According to Gottschalk, liberal political figures, especially Bill Clinton, campaigned on behalf of the drug war, the war on crime, and the victims’ rights movements (Gottschalk, 2006).

Sociologist David Garland (2001) argues that the political changes reveal a cultural change (pp. 22–26). For Garland, prisons that claimed to reform convicts were part of a cultural moment that has disappeared. He wrote that, in the mid-20th century, when jobs were plentiful and equality was on the increase, “crime and delinquency could be viewed not as a threat to social order but as a lingering relic of previous deprivations” (p. 48). That changed in the 1980s during a long recession. Companies stopped keeping promises they’d given workers, women took jobs, families often had two breadwinners, households grew smaller, divorces were frequent, union power diminished, and relativism contradicted Enlightenment beliefs. Garland argues. “Crime—together with associated ‘underclass’ behaviors such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, and welfare dependency—came to function as a rhetorical legitimation for social and economic policies that effectively punished the poor and as a justification for the development of a strong disciplinary state” (Garland, 2001, pp. 101–102).

Jonathan Simon (2007) wrote that politicians in local, state, and national levels in the United States have been “governing through crime,” and have constructed a “civil order built around crime,” causing “the portion of the population held in custody for crimes” to grow “well beyond historic norms” because of increases in sentence length and in the sheer number of laws. Simon argues that “governing through crime” is a vote-getter (Simon, 2007, pp. 4–6).

An ever-expanding metaphor of crime, Simon wrote, brings government into parts of daily life that once seemed unrelated to crime and criminals. “It is not a great jump to go from (a) concerns about juvenile crime through (b) measures in schools that treat students primarily as potential criminals or victims, and (c) later still, to attacks on academic failure as a kind of crime someone must be held accountable for” (p. 5). While American schools were once rehabilitative, attempting to improve students’ lives, crime worries, Simon wrote, have caused a drastic shift to hallway policy and in-school detention (Simon, 2007).

Simon sees middle-class worries that are larger than the actual crime threat as causing cultural changes such as gated communities and protected places of work and school and home life. “The family is treated as a locus of suspicions about crime that requires surveillance and intervention by criminal law institutions,” Simon wrote. “Parents are drafted as an extension of law enforcement” (pp. 8–9). Further, “There is a new emphasis on screening potential employees for illegal behavior of almost any sort” (Simon, 2007, pp. 9–10).

For Simon, “governing through crime” has caused a “vast reorienting of fiscal and administrative resources toward the criminal justice system.” The result, he said, “has not been less government, but a more authoritarian executive, a more passive legislature, and a more defensive judiciary” (Simon, 2007, pp. 6, 4).

In Punishment and Inequality in America, Bruce Western (2006) wrote that any positive interpretation of American domestic economic policies during the early 2000s was dependent on imprisoned black men, who were shut out from the job market. If imprisoned black men were counted, Western wrote, “young black men have experienced virtually no real economic gains on young whites.” Western’s statistics revealed the black unemployment rate to be 20% higher than the official one (Western, 2006, p. 103).

Further Reading

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.Find this resource:

Ayers, E. L. (1984). Vengeance and justice: Crime and punishment in the nineteenth-century American South. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Brown, M. (2009). The culture of punishment: Prison, society, and spectacle. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

Cavadino, M., & Dignan, J. (2006). Penal systems, a comparative approach. London: SAGE Publications.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, (A. Sheridan, Trans). New York: Pantheon.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (2015). The punitive society: Lectures at the College De France, 1972–1973. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Garland, D. (2001). The culture of control: Crime and social order in contemporary society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Gottschalk, M. (2006). The prison and the gallows: The politics of mass incarceration in America. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Lacey, N. (2008). The prisoner’s dilemma: Political economy and punishment in contemporary democracies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Lichtenstein, A. (1996). Twice the work of free labor: The political economy of convict labor in the new South. London: Verso.Find this resource:

Masur, L. P. (1989). Rites of execution: Capital punishment and the transformation of American culture, 1776–1865. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Simon, J. (2007). Governing through crime: How the war on crime transformed American democracy and created a culture of fear. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Tonry, M. (2004). Thinking about crime: Sense and sensibility in American penal culture. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Walker, S. (1980). Popular justice: A history of American criminal justice. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Reference List

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Articles for cross-listing:

Bank Robbery in Popular Culture; Capital Punishment, Closure, and Media; Car Crimes and the Cultural Imagination; Content Analysis in the Study of Crime, Media, and Popular Culture; Crime in Nineteenth-Century Literature; The “CSI Effect”; Cultural Studies Approaches to the Study of Crime in Film and on Television; Fear of Crime; Guilt or Innocence in American Courtroom Films; Juries in Film and Television; Police Dramas on Television; Prisons in Popular Culture;


(1.) According to curator Susan Flynt, the whipping post arrived in 1897 at the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts, with this note: “Whipping Post—used in a School house in Sunderland built in 1791. Scholars were tied to it and whipped in the presence of the school.”

(2.) Jenkins (2006) connects Graham’s book with increasing belief in evil and supernatural forces during the 1970s (p. 84).

(3.) Quoted on page 34 in Ruddell, R. (2004). America behind bars: Trends in imprisonment, 1950 to 2000. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publications LLC.