Elevate Difference

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment

"When the annals of our era are written, the United States will… come to be defined as a prison state." Not to spoil the ending, but this is the last, haunting sentence of American Furies, Sasha Abramsky's scathing indictment of the U.S. prison system. If you still believe that America is a just democracy where everyone is treated equal, then you really have to read this book. I found myself laughing aloud in sour irony recently as President Bush commuted Scooter Libby's prison term because he felt that the thirty month sentence was "excessive." Tell that to Dan Johnson, an inmate that Abramsky profiles who is currently serving a twenty-eight years to life sentence for possession of a small amount of cocaine, his "third strike" drug offense in California.

I worked in womens' prisons and juvenile corrections institutions for six years and still found my jaw dropping at the absurdities and horrors described in this nightmare of a book. Whether describing female chain gangs in Arizona, the capitalistic rise of private prisons or the inhuman and torturous conditions in maximum security units, Abramsky conjures the human stories behind the headlines. He contextualizes the present prison crisis by outlining the history of incarceration in the U.S., beginning with the 18th century's silent prisons, through the rehabilitation movements of the 1960s and '70s and then the tough-on-crime backlash of the 1980s through today.

His statistics are damning: In some communities, more young men go to prison than go to college; the U.S. spends more money on criminal justice than on higher education; the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other industrialized nation; and on and on. He parallels political movements and social trends with the rise of the pro-prison "business," and tracks the "victim's rights" campaigns and their harsh effects on sentencing. Though a comprehensive whirlwind of stories, statistics and interviews, at under 200 pages, I felt that he left out some crucial feminist issues, such as the rise in female inmates, particularly girls, and the effects of parents' incarceration on children.

But don't dismiss this book as just another scathing rant about how screwed up the system is. Abramsky knows how to write a story and his imagery, intellect, passion and anger bleed through each chapter. I kept naively waiting, though, for that magic finale where he offers hope and solutions for our nation's violently oppressive present situation. Though it's no happy-ending fairy tale, _American Furies _serves as a fierce warning of the self-perpetuating cycle of violence we ascribe to if we continue to let prisons replace schools as the incubators for our future.

Written by: Dana Edell, July 31st 2007