Cover: Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, from Harvard University PressCover: Inferno in PAPERBACK


An Anatomy of American Punishment

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$31.00 • £26.95 • €28.95

ISBN 9780674983939

Publication Date: 06/04/2018


352 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches


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If I had won the $400 million Powerball lottery last week I swear I would have ordered a copy for every member of Congress, every judge in America, every prosecutor, and every state prison official and lawmaker who controls the life of even one of the millions of inmates who exist today, many in inhumane and deplorable conditions, in our nation’s prisons. The book is potentially transformative not just because it offers policy makers some solutions to the litany of problems they face as they seek ways to reform our broken penal systems. It is transcendent because it posits that America needs a fundamentally revised understanding of the concept of punishment itself if it is to save its soul in these prisons… This book forces prison officials and lawmakers to look inward and see within themselves the dark, unremitting reasons why things have gotten as bad as they have inside our prisons and jails. It says squarely to these political and legal and community leaders (and by extension to their constituents): in seeking to bring retributive justice to bear, in seeking to diminish the prisoner, you have also diminished yourself in ways you are unable or unwilling to admit. Even today, with the whiff of reform in the air, this is a brave and honest message.—Andrew Cohen, The Atlantic

Inferno is a passionate, wide-ranging effort to understand and challenge…our heavy reliance on imprisonment. It is an important book, especially for those (like me) who are inclined towards avoidance and tragic complacency. If Robert A. Ferguson is persuasive on nothing else, he is convincing in his claim that we should look our use of imprisonment full in the face. That means examining the psychological, philosophical, cultural, institutional, and political reasons for locking so many away. This examination can be uncomfortable indeed. Ferguson is relentless in demonstrating how our use of the language of fairness and rationality can obscure vindictiveness and arbitrariness… Ferguson brings this unblinking honesty to other aspects of the punishment system. He insists that we uncover and acknowledge the pleasure people can take in retribution. He shows how the sterile influence of legal positivism has helped to strip legal language of its moral component… His book is too balanced and thoughtful to be disregarded.—Robert F. Nagel, Weekly Standard

The book’s descent into the frightening depths of criminal punishment leaves us nearly despondent… Ferguson’s major re-envisioning of what incarceration offers us is a chance to turn our present incarcerative hell into a purgative place where hope of redemption can still survive… Ferguson’s book opens our eyes in the darkness and points to a possible exit. It should be required reading for judges, legislators, politicians, prison authorities and all of us who are democratically responsible for the inferno that together we have created.—Francis R. Herrmann, America

This is less a public-policy book than a deeper exploration of what it means to punish… So much of Ferguson’s project is an attempt to bring readers closer to understanding what it’s like to fall into the maw of the justice system—that’s why he has no compunction about bringing in literature (Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and other authors) when nonfiction is too dry or imprecise to do the job. When trying to understand the unimaginable torment of sitting alone in a coffin-like cell for years, or of watching helplessly as one’s execution date creeps closer and closer, sometimes fictions comes closer to capturing these horrors better than any ACLU report ever could. Inferno is a wide-ranging effort that covers many subjects. A section on Cesare Beccaria, an 18th-century thinker and reformer on justice issues, is fascinating… Ferguson’s descriptions of the hell that is solitary confinement (and the arbitrary, capricious manner in which the incarcerated are subjected to it) are powerful… Inferno still stands out as an interesting, intellectually innovative take on a hellish problem.—Jesse Singal, Boston Globe

Probing and thought-provoking… The book moves deftly among philosophy, law, and criminology, but its heart and soul is literature… [An] excellent book.—Joshua Dubler, Chronicle of Higher Education

The measurements of the American mania for incarceration are both staggering and, apparently, meaningless. With five per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 per cent of its prisoners, 100,000 of them in mind- and soul-destroying solitary… The heart of this superb book is a search for the deeper reasons, for the roots of the American impulse to punish, and punish severely. Ferguson…maintains a tone that is remarkably, not accusatory or political, as he roams through Dante and Melville, Hobbes, Locke and Machiavelli looking for clues, for the punished are generally silent (or silenced)… The current, self-defeating situation—where the $80-billion-a-year U.S. prison system does nothing so well as it trains and brutalizes future violent offenders—has been a generation in the making, and will probably take as long to wind down. But that process can’t even begin until Americans start talking about why they do what they do.—Brian Bethune, Maclean’s

Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment explores the unusual cruelty and vengefulness in our criminal justice system.—Andrew Sullivan, The Dish

An important wake-up call about an emerging crisis that threatens to become a human rights scandal of global proportions.Kirkus Reviews

Ferguson’s descriptions of prisoners’ suffering are compelling and thought provoking… A must for those working within the criminal justice system, the law, or religion.—Frances O. Sandiford, Library Journal

Ferguson succeeds in his aim of provoking thought in this broad assault on the American approach to punishing crime… Ferguson also manages to make the reader identify with the incarcerated, no mean feat in a society where many are more likely to view themselves as a potential victim of crime than a potential inmate… The need for punishment is not in question, rather it is the severity, and Ferguson time and again forces the reader to look deeper at an issue to which most people are oblivious… For the most part he makes a heavy, complex, and contentious subject accessible to the layperson.Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Robert Ferguson’s Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment is a book of searing moral vision. He asks how it is that we have become a nation of punishers who can no longer see the human dignity of the punished—indeed, can no longer see the punished at all. Inferno penetrates the veil thrown over America’s prison archipelago, insisting that we recognize the psychological, moral, and social consequences to the punished and punishers alike. How, he asks, have we allowed the growth of a punishment regime no less horrifying than that of the Soviet gulags? Ferguson is our Dante, acting as our guide through the travesty that is the American inferno. No one can come away from this book without a sense of their own complicity in the sin of our nation, yet with some hope that though the path forward is difficult, it is not yet completely closed.—Paul W. Kahn, Yale Law School

Inferno is a passionate, anguished cry against what is sometimes lamented but more than anything is taken for granted and ignored. He enlists his readers in a serious and sustained effort to reform America’s prisons and jails. I know of no book just like Ferguson’s.—Lloyd Weinreb, Harvard Law School

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