The biggest book in the world right now is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, a book that is certainly “the right book for the right time” and of which all of the “right questions” are being asked. The most important of these questions are the variations on to what end? What will become of the various recommendations and insights this book offers? [End Page 148]
Doran Larson’s Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America is likewise very much “the right book for the right time,” asking all of the “right questions” about the American prison-industrial complex. We can presume that Larson’s book will not be as big as is Piketty’s, in no small part because while the latter’s critique of capital accumulation is “sexy,” Larson’s book is, to quote one of his contributors, “unseemly” (134). But it is a necessary unseemliness, a discomfort that comes from being forced to confront vital questions that have material impact not just on the obviously implicated—the millions of Americans subject to the prison-industrial complex—but to those less obviously implicated, that is, all American citizens. In this case, those questions can be summarized in two terse “why” questions: Why did we allow this to happen?; and why, when we have so much at stake in prisons, do we ignore them so completely?
In broaching these questions, Fourth City is refreshingly direct about its intentions: to provide “first-person, frontline witness to the human experience of mass incarceration in the United States” (1). The book’s title announces its intentions plainly, for, as Larson notes in his Introduction, “If gathered together in one place, incarcerated Americans would constitute the nation’s fourth largest city—a city larger than Houston, Philadelphia, or Phoenix” (1). Having established the basic demographic metric, Larson turns next to an overview of the prison system as it is currently constituted. His introduction is thoughtful, comprehensive, and is itself an excellent contribution as, in part, a bibliographic essay on the state of the literature on “lockdown America,” to borrow from Christian Parenti.
Fourth City is divided into two broadly thematic parts, the first on what we can call the “geographies” of prison city and the second on the “rationales” of prison city. The first part gives readers explanations of life within prisons—the dangers, the fear, the inhumanity and dehumanization, and the humanity and redemption that can occur in spite of the prison. The geographies here—personal; moral; of violence; of language, communication, behavior, and custom; of location and dislocation—are on full display, at least insofar as they can be when reduced to text and offered to a readership that presumably has at best only a meager frame of reference. They are also compelling, particularly on the crucial questions of distance that the writers reflect upon. These distances can be between the way the contributors see themselves now as opposed to before, the distance between them and the people they want to be or feel capable of becoming, between notions of rehabilitation and the dehumanization the prison demands, and, perhaps most pressingly, between prisoners and their families. Numerous essays also declare what several studies have shown, which is that the isolation from support networks that our contemporary prison-industrial complex relies on is one of the surest predictors of recidivism.
The second part presents the various rationales and regimes that govern prisons and prison life. These contributions cover the rationales that govern the lives of prisoners subject to racism within the institutions, sexual violence from other inmates and from corrections officers, and lack of access to mental and physical health care. Noting that a federal judge has declared that the lack of health care in California prisons amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” (221), these sections [End Page 149] offer a variety of pieces that directly confront the question of, as the title of one piece asks, “Why Are We a Nation of Prisons?” (185). Why are we so invested in a system that is...