A Discussion with Professor Robert A. Ferguson about “Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment”

“Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment,” is both an easy read and an uncomfortable one. Professor Robert Ferguson’s latest book, out this month from Harvard University Press, gets to the root of why America punishes more heavily than its other first-world counterparts, and in doing so forces the reader to confront their own beliefs that underlie their ideas around punishment.

Professor Ferguson took the time to discuss “Inferno,” the genesis of which occurred in his class on “The Art of Legal Persuasion.” Students, acting as prosecutors and provided with the same fact pattern, proposed wildly different punishments for the perpetrator. This brought to his attention that “people have very strong ideas about punishment, but basically no idea about what they were really doing. When we say ‘put him away,’ we’re saying just forget about them. And I think that’s one of the major problems we’re facing right now.”

The book forces readers to face the reality of what occurs to the punished in America, and the current state of the national prison system. Ferguson excels at putting the reader in the mindset of the imprisoned and the punished, making them consider the pain inherent in the system. He explained this approach, saying, “I think if people really realize what prison is like, and that essentially our punishment regimes are failing, not succeeding, then there might be a chance that people want to do something about it. But it’s not going to be easy.”

Stylistically, the approach is unique. Ferguson uses a huge variety of sources to build an analysis of the American approach to punishment — drawing on literature, history, philosophy, case law, and contemporary examples to build his deep analysis. In doing so, he meets his goal of making the book accessible to readers outside of academia. In his own words, Americans need to pay attention to this problem “because what we’re doing is really quite unconscionable. We’re ruining lives instead of helping them. The recidivism rate is high, in part because our prison system turns people who weren’t really serious criminals into serious criminals.”

While the subject matter is grim, the book is not without solutions. Ferguson points out that the common mentality among punishment is “If it’s not working, you increase it. In fact, what we ought to say is if it’s not working, maybe we should be doing something different.” The final two chapters look at where can we go from here and proposes recognizable legislative steps that can be taken. It also goes a step further to suggest how to make those legislative proposals a practical, politically feasible reality – we need to change the entire conversation around punishment in America.

Difficulties with this proposal abound, and neither Professor Ferguson nor his book shies away from them. The prison system is an $80 billion industry employing one in nine state employees, and there are many groups invested in maintaining the current system. Yet, Ferguson proposes that if we can change the very language used when talking about punishment reform and, most importantly, recognize the humanity in the punished, we may be able to move toward a better system.

If you’re interested in further reading on Professor Ferguson’s work around punishment, we highly recommend “Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment.” If you’d like something shorter to whet your appetite or tide you over under after finals, check out his op-ed in The Guardian, and this review in The Atlantic

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