Marc Morjé Howard’s book provides a shocking picture of America’s treatment of convicts through a detailed comparison of the European and American Prison systems.
Astra Zoldnere
Zoldnere is a Latvian film director, curator and publicist. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 17, 2018

Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism
Author: Marc Morjé Howard
published in 2017,

Marc Morjé Howard’s Unusually Cruel is a detailed comparison between American and European prison systems. With a step-by-step analysis of the conviction process, prison circumstances, rehabilitation and re-entry into society, the book provides a shocking picture of the structural cruelty that American prisoners are subjected to. It also reveals a system that is not designed to reduce crime.

Welcome to Hell

The statistics say it all. There are many more people behind bars in the United States than in any other country in the world. While the US is home to five per cent of the world’s population, it houses nearly twenty-five per cent of its prisoners – seven to ten times more than European countries. The cause: that Americans have replaced courts with plea bargains – within this system the accused frequently claim to be guilty out of fear of getting even longer prison terms. Also, people are more likely to be sentenced to much longer prison terms than in Europe.

«The book reveals a system that is not designed to reduce crime.»

The Black Lives Matter movement has already illuminated the brutality of the heavily armed US police force, which shoots many more people than that of any other Western democracy. Howard’s description of prison conditions resembles the harsh images from American blockbusters: overcrowded, unsanitary places that are ruled by brutal convicts. In order to survive one needs to be ready to fight. The inmates are constantly facing sexual violence and rape risks, and the ones who can’t stand up for themselves need to pair up with the stronger ones – in exchange for protection they pay with sexual services.

A high rate of recidivism

Such an environment is highly traumatic and can cause psychological damage. After getting out of this hell people have very limited room for movement. In most cases they are not eligible for social housing. Neither landlords nor companies want people with a record – especially if they have black skin. As American prisons usually provide no education or other rehabilitation possibilities, many prisoners return to society with very little skills to offer in a free job market. Accordingly, the very high rate of recidivism makes perfect sense.

Marc Howard’s “Prison Reform Project” class that brought together students from Georgetown University and the Jessup Correctional Institution was featured as the cover story in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine in September 2016.

A question arises – why have Americans made such an ineffective system? The populist «tough on crime» movement started in the mid-70s – a time when crime was increasing. And even though the criminal situation has improved since the 90s, both Republicans and Democrats keep supporting an eye-for-an-eye approach. Howard explains it with four factors: race, religion, politics, and business.

«African Americans have never been given the opportunity to heal their cultural trauma.»

One could consider the religion factor to be debatable: while Christian fundamentalists – which many Americans and especially Republicans favour – could have some impact on the attitude towards criminals, this argument raises many questions and asks for a more comprehensive analysis than the book provides. However, the factors of race, politics and business are explored in the book with convincing arguments.

Politics and exploitation

Dostoevsky has written: «The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.» Many of the decisions regarding prisons (which in Europe are made by political elites and regulated by the European Convention of Human rights) in the US have been left to the public. And most Americans keep supporting the death penalty and the «tough on crime» approach. Also, in most states the lead prosecutors and judges are elected, and public vote shows that people want blood. When elections are approaching, judges more often than juries impose the death penalty. So, if it’s popular to kill somebody, what does that say about the society as such?

Masses are acting like strict parents who wrongly assume that beating their children will stop them from misbehaving in the future. But what do those in power want? Well, it gets even more dirty here. In the USA, politicking goes hand-in-hand with business lobbying. It starts with profit-making private prisons, which contain around eight per cent of the total prison population. And there are plenty of other companies providing goods and services to both private and public prisons. The situation is paradoxical – taxpayers pay huge amounts of money to businesses for serving an unnecessarily high number of prisoners.

Michael Madsen, Halden Prison , Halden, Norway

Additionally, some of the prisoners are allowed to work, but make as little as several dollars per day. As the number of incarcerated African Americans is six times larger than that of whites, this legal misuse raises ethical questions relating to post-slavery American history. Soon after the abolishment of slavery, convict leasing and plantation prisons served the same racial exploitation goals. And now mass incarceration continues racial oppression. In other words, African Americans have never been given the opportunity to heal their cultural trauma and as a result still carry around the huge burden of slavery.

The most humane prison on earth

Danish director Michael Madsen has made a short documentary (part of Cathedrals of Culture from 2014) about the Norwegian prison Halden, located in the city of the same name. Halden Prison is the most humane prison on earth, and it houses the most dangerous Norwegian criminals.

«Unusually Cruel makes it clear that the better functioning prison systems concentrate on rehabilitating criminals.»

The architectural masterpiece is designed according to contemporary consciousness and resembles normal living conditions as much as possible in order to prepare the inmates for returning to society. And though it’s naive to think that American prisons could get even close to Halden anytime in the near future, Howard in Unusually Cruel makes it clear that the better functioning systems concentrate on rehabilitating criminals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the harsh system in the US will change soon. Not before academics, civil rights activists and humanistic opinion shapers become stronger than economical lobbies.