Book 44 of Cannonball Read 2
Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business is Jessica Mitford’s expose of the ways in which prisons exploit and abuse their prisoners. Though it was published in 1974 and some of the specifics of her research - statistics and facts - may be out of date, the philosophies behind American prisons have not changed, and her critiques of the system ring true today.
Mitford, the muck-raking journalist who also wrote The American Way of Death, looks at every aspect of imprisonment, including the attitudes of those who keep the keys to prisons. She investigates every step of the process of incarceration - court proceedings, imprisonment, work and wages within the prisons, work release programs, and the eventual release back into society - and finds pretty much every aspect problematic.
The ‘why’ of these problems has more to do with the ideas that she investigates - first and foremost, the idea of there being a ‘criminal type’, a type of person who is innately more likely to commit a crime. Mitford explores the changing ideas of a criminal type throughout history, and comes away with the conclusion that the criminal type is actually the poor, non-white type whose actions are criminalized, even when they cause little harm to society.
Mitford also looks at the process of plea-bargaining, finding that it is weighted more towards the ease and comfort of those who work in the judicial system than the accused criminals whose lives are drastically changed by the proceedings. Mitford looks at a ‘treatment’ model of prisons, and finds this lacking, too, because it assumes that everyone in prison is mentally ill. Additionally, treatment professionals are often looked down upon by security staff, and are unable to effectively advocate for their patients/prisoners because of the harsh, often violent mentality of the wardens and guards at prisons.
All this might sound like some radical communist bullcrap - it doesn’t to me, and would not have even without the facts Mitford presents. She provides a compelling argument that our prison system is rotten to the core, and provides little alternatives or ways to reform the system - to Mitford, a just society would not have a prison system.