Vol. 7 No. 4 (April 1997) pp. 140-141.

THE POWERS THAT PUNISH: PRISON AND POLITICS IN THE ERA OF THE "BIG HOUSE," 1920-1955 by Charles Bright. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996. 326 pp. Cloth $47.50.

Reviewed by Lawrence M. Friedman, Law School, Stanford University

THE POWERS THAT PUNISH begins in a very promising way. There is a long introductory chapter, perhaps the most interesting part of the book, reviewing the literature on the history, sociology, and political relevance of American prisons. The author, to be sure, seems to be under the spell of Foucault's slippery and arcane vocabulary. Still, Bright is not an uncritical fan of Foucault. In fact, he presents us with an interesting critique of Foucault's views on crime and punishment. Foucault, he says, "was quite wrong about the unidirectional spread of discipline... and was unable to see how much prisoners participated in the process of bringing things to order behind the walls" (p. 23). This reciprocity is one of the themes of Bright's book.

The introductory chapter, full of insightful comments on the scholarship of penology, is, however, somewhat misleading as a guide to what comes after it. The subtitle of this book uses the phrase "prison and politics;" and the main story line, in fairly daunting detail, is about politics, specifically politics in Michigan, from 1920 to 1955: the rise and fall of wardens, heads of the Department of Correction, and the like. Bright's main emphasis seems to be on the way in which prison politics and general Michigan politics, all the way to the governorship, interacted.

The "Big House" of the title is Michigan's Jackson State Penitentiary, built in the 1920's. When I began reading the book, I thought I would find in it a detailed account of conditions inside the prison itself -- about who the prisoners were, what there daily life was like, how they constructed their world. The introductory chapter, and the author's reciprocity thesis, increased this expectation. But there is actually very little material on life inside the prison. There are tantalizing comments here and there, but Bright never really does flesh out the story. We never really get to see the prison's innards, its social system, its interlocking communities.

This is a great pity, because Bright is clearly interested in the subject; and his general remarks on related issues are often of enormous interest. They left me hungering for detail and follow-through. The prison system, Bright tells us, was reorganized around "industrial labor" in the 1920's; which meant (again this more or less contradicts Foucault) that prisons were relatively less monitored than before (certainly they were much "freer" than the classic penitentiaries of the 19th century). In Jackson, once the "industrial" system was in place, there were more "opportunities for pilfering;" and the managers, "in their effort to maximize output," permitted a lot of slippage in discipline (p. 103). Indeed, generally speaking, for most of the period Bright describes, "keepers and kept were clearly locked in an elaborate game of antagonistic collaboration;" they were forced "to cohabit in a crude and unequal intimacy" (p. 166).

In the concluding chapters, Bright analyzes what he considers a major change in penal theory and practice. As he sees it, the central role of industrial labor in the prison declined toward the end of the period he dealt with. What replaced it as the core activity was "classification;" this was the "new coordinating science," which swallowed up and dominated such other activities as work and education (p. 254). Penology, in other words, shifted toward professionalization. At the core of this penology was the "expert or professional, equipped with diagnostic tests, case histories, scores, standards, norms, and results." But this very process of "elevating expertise and legitimizing the ascendancy of professionals" meant that the convicts themselves were redefined as "dysfunctional, incompetent, disturbed misfits." This tended to produce "disconnection and disenfranchisement," and disturbed the old world of "face-to-face accommodation" inside the walls (p. 279)-- the system alluded to earlier. Bright thinks the new penology was to blame for growing unrest at Jackson, and its tragic climax in 1952, when a serious riot broke out.

I suspect that there are other, and perhaps more powerful, sources of this and other prison riots; and of course there is a substantial literature on the subject of prison unrest--without any obvious consensus about causes and cures. Nonetheless, Bright's notion is well worth pursuing. And it underscores what is at once attractive and frustrating about this book-- intriguing ideas are scattered about; there are significant insights throughout; but the actual story-line seems unduly focused on rather minute details of Michigan politics, inside and outside the prison establishment. Despite its flaws, this is a real contribution to the historical literature on prisons and punishment; and it will reward the patient reader.

Copyright 1997