restricted access A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World (review)
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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 30.4 (2000) 643-645

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Book Review

A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World

A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World. By Vivien Stern (Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1998) 432 pp. $47.50 cloth $18.95 paper.

As the title warns, this is not a cautious and dispassionate study of prisons. Stern sets out to state "the case for change in our system," and the book's [End Page 643] foreword--by Carl Niehaus, imprisoned seven years for his opposition to apartheid and now South Africa's ambassador to the Netherlands--aptly praises it for avoiding "cold academic analysis" (xix, xvi). Stern approaches her subject less as a scholar than as a seasoned and well-traveled reformer. Her principal sources are government statistics, reports by public-interest groups, accounts by prisoners themselves, news stories, and her own visits to prisons all over the world. Stern's firsthand observations figure prominently in the book and lend it strength and credibility. She writes in the tradition not of Foucault or Rothman, but rather of Howard, the peripatetic and influential critic of eighteenth-century prisons in England and Wales. 1 But Howard simply wanted prisons to be run better; Stern wants imprisonment both improved and greatly curtailed. Whereas Howard focused on the ways in which bad prisons differed from good ones, Stern emphasizes not only the horrors of particular institutions, but also the pathologies to which, she suggests, all incarceration is prone.

The book begins with a brief sketch of the history of prisons in the West, drawing heavily on secondary sources and highlighting the export of British and European penal policies to colonial Africa and the New World. Stern then surveys prisons in four countries with widely different styles of incarceration: the United States, with its skyrocketing and racially lopsided prison populations, its often gratuitously punitive conditions of confinement, and its growing enchantment with the ideology of preventive confinement; Russia, with its long tradition of punishment through exile and forced labor; China, which Stern suggests combines the cruelties of the gulag with Benthamite efforts at coercive "rehabilitation"; and Japan, where Stern finds clean, quiet prisons, minutely and repressively regulating every aspect of prisoners' behavior. Stern follows this institutional overview with an examination of the prisoners themselves, stressing their disadvantaged backgrounds and the dehumanizing aspects of prison life. She discusses the special situations of female prisoners, juvenile prisoners, and prisoners serving life sentences.

The disciplinary problems presented by "lifers" lead Stern to her most important themes: the dynamics of abusive prison conditions, and the possibilities and limitations of reform. Drawing partly on her own considerable experience, she describes the sundry mechanisms of prison oversight currently in operation--official and unofficial; local, national, and international--and offers a mixed assessment of their success. Firmly committed to reform, she nonetheless argues that the inherently antisocial nature of incarceration, especially when coupled with ever-present political pressures for tougher punishment, guarantees the endless recurrence [End Page 644] of a downward spiral of prisoner misconduct and repressive control. She therefore suggests that the recent trend toward prison privatization is troubling not so much because privately operated prisons are more brutal or more squalid--in fact, she notes, they "often sort out their teething problems and settle down"--but because they create a "prison-industrial complex" with a vested interest in carceral expansion (295, 301). The book closes with a call to abandon imprisonment for the great majority of offenders and to replace it with "restorative justice," based on what Braithwaite has called "reintegrative shaming" (326, 323). 2

In the course of the book, Stern briefly addresses recent contentions that high rates of incarceration reduce crime, but her arguments on this point are largely perfunctory. It is obvious to her--as it will be to many but not all readers--that, except for the very violent, imprisonment serves little purpose. Her aim, in any event, is not to debate fine points of statistics and deterrence theory, but rather to get her readers to stop "tak[ing] prisons...