Crime and Punishment: Perspectives from the Humanities: Volume 37

Cover of Crime and Punishment: Perspectives from the Humanities

Table of contents

(15 chapters)


Pages v-vi
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More reverberant today than ever, given the current legal and political climate, artist David Wojnarowicz's victorious lawsuit in 1990 against evangelist Donald Wildmon's American Family Association tangled with still relevant contexts: plight of the NEA, disastrous AIDS pandemic, and continuous church/state involvement in public debate over social values, including individual rights to sexual representation and artistic expression. Yet strangely, the artist remains largely absent from both “culture wars” narratives and the general record. Increasing his visibility and arguing his significance, this essay re-inserts Wojnarowicz into history, his work profoundly challenging what he called “the illusion of the ONE TRIBE NATION.”

Through an analysis of the French crown's investigation into the greatest scandal of Louis XIV's reign, this article examines the unstable boundary between sin and crime at the height of the Catholic Reformation in France. The prosecution of the suspects in the Affair of the Poisons, it argues, allowed a key change in the French state's definition of crime. In 1682, the crown decriminalized magic. It continued to prosecute “so-called magicians,” however, because their practices were deemed sacrilegious. Any person convicted of “treason against God” was therefore sentenced to the most severe form of execution inflicted under French law: to be burnt alive. Louis XIV's determination to ensure social order and religious orthodoxy was made manifest in the state's rituals of punishment.

This article examines the early post-World War II civil rights organizing of black women radicals affiliated with the organized left. It details the work of these women in such organizations as the Civil Rights Congress and Freedom newspaper as they fought to challenge the unjust conviction and sentencing of black defendants caught in the racial machinations of U.S. local and state criminal justice systems. These campaigns against what was provocatively called “legal lynching” formed a cornerstone of African American civil rights activism in the early postwar years. In centering the civil rights politics and organizing of these black women radicals, a more detailed picture emerges of the Communist Party-supported anti-legal lynching campaigns. Such a perspective moves beyond a view of civil rights legal activism as solely the work of lawyers, to examining the ways committed activists within the U.S. left, helped to build this legal activism and sustain an important left base in the U.S. during the Cold War.

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Notions of justice and punishment seem inextricably entwined in the oldest conceptual traditions of the West. Changing notions of just state responses to citizen crime can tell us much about the culture and the politics of a given society. Yet, often those notions are radically contradictory, mutually exclusive, and/or counterproductive of the goals they seek, together, to achieve in the society.This paper traces a genealogy of punishment rituals practiced in the United States and maps the relationship of reigning ideas of just recompense onto transforming political and cultural realities. This paper highlights the multiple paradoxes that have arisen in the U.S. in the attempt to visualize and realize appropriate and just punishment practices in the state.

In 1996, philosopher Jacques Derrida appealed to then President Bill Clinton to encourage a re-trial for American death-row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Derrida's co-authored open letter, one of his most famous political interventions, rehearses the trajectory of his later writings on ethics, specifically the interrelated concepts of justice and forgiveness. In articulating the limits of legality, Derrida contends that an unconditional forgiveness exists outside the conventional dichotomy of the possible and the impossible. The performative paradox of “forgiving the unforgivable” may well require, in his own formulation, a “messianicity beyond messianism.”

After establishing that the requirement that those criminals who stand for execution be mentally competent can be given a recognizably retributivist rationale, I suggest that not only it is difficult to show that executing the incompetent is more cruel than executing the competent, but that opposing the execution of the incompetent fits ill with the recent abolitionist efforts on procedural concerns. I then propose two avenues by which abolitionists could incorporate such opposition into their efforts.

Punishment is essentially about the expression and establishment of power. As such, punishment always carries with it the possibility of debasement. I want to insist that the only morally legitimate purpose of punishment is to instill a respect for authority that does not demean the subordinated party (for example, as a parent might punish his or her child). In sum, my argument is that although harsh institutional punishment may be justifiable on utilitarian grounds, it is objectionable for aesthetic reasons that are ultimately far more important. As Nietzsche caustically recognized in the case of Christianity, the metaphysics of punishment is driven by the ugly feeling of ressentiment. Nevertheless, Christianity does emphasize one aspect of the question of punishment that Nietzsche would enthusiastically embrace: the attitude of forgiveness (or the act of mercy). For Nietzsche, mercy is a reflection of a beautiful strength. A new punitive paradigm, one that asserted superiority without debasing the criminal, might pave the way for a more general affirmation of life.

This essay engages the work of sociologist George Herbert Mead and political theorist William E. Connolly, applying a reading of their understanding of the criminal other to the development of Illinois’ and South Carolina's penal systems at the turn of the nineteenth century. Despite an influx of European immigrants, Illinois politicians and prison officials fashioned an approach to corrections that relied on rehabilitation through assimilation as the core component of disciplining its convict population. In contrast to this approach, South Carolina fashioned a penology based upon the principle of exclusion, one that enshrined retribution over rehabilitation in the paradigm of punishment. The essay concludes by comparing the importance of racial and ethno-cultural politics in shaping regional and national debates over correctional policy and by examining the primary function race plays in explaining the current backlash against the rehabilitative ideal informing so much of contemporary penology.

Worst of the Worst

Pages 199-239
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Donna L. Van Raaphorst provides a detailed statistical analysis of a large sample of Alcatraz Prison inmates using the Social Science Statistical Package. The data, drawn directly from the inmate files, is compared whenever possible with similar data provided by the Bureau of Prisons in order to determine if Alcatraz, often regarded as America's Devil's Island, really incarcerated the so-called “Worst of the Worst” in its time. The results would seem to indicate that Alcatraz inmates were, in fact, not remarkably different from those in any other Federal prison in the system.

Despite the volumes that have been written on America's correctional crisis – the peerless incarceration rate, disproportionate confinement of minority group members and democratically untenable policies of disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions – criminal justice policy has changed little within the past decade or more. An important voice has been left out of these correctional policy formulations – that of prisoners. This paper proposes convict labor unions as one way to address this issue. It utilizes the United States Supreme Court majority's arguments in Jones v. North Carolina to assess the feasibility of inmate labor unions in light of current federal, state and local institutional operations; and provides a very tentative outline of how a prisoners’ labor union could be structured and function – exploring the potential democratic ramifications of such unions for corrections and in broader social policy.

Beginning in narrative re-evaluated daily from classrooms inside prison walls, this article further explores cultural, ethical, and social values of teaching college courses inside the wall. Interrogating public discourse over what Eric Schlosser terms the “prison–industrial complex” arrogates subsequent considerations. Prison-building became a growth industry, even as prevailing political response to prisoners themselves became increasingly censorious and unforgiving. Traditional American culture preaches redemption but relishes abasement, promises forgiveness but refuses forgetting. Carefully examining further questions about humanistic discourse as a possible locus for radicalization, we finally confront how the prisoners’ situation reflects rather than deflects traditional expectations.

Many attempts have been made to justify punishment by invoking the moral autonomy and dignity of those who are subject to it. Yet the most refined of these attempts have been informed by an awareness of paradox. For the practice of punishment, so closely linked to concepts of individual freedom, tends to degrade those subjected to it. And as a form of state action predicated on claims of moral or social solidarity, it often prevents inquiry into the ways that individual culpability coexists within broader political forms of responsibility. This essay explores the ways in which college in prison programs like the Bard Prison Initiative may intervene in this paradox of punishment.

Cover of Crime and Punishment: Perspectives from the Humanities
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Studies in Law, Politics, and Society
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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