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The Powers That Punish: Prison and Politics in the Era of the "Big House," 1920-1955.

The main body of this book is an interesting study of the interactions between state politics and the State Prison of South Michigan which was "the largest walled institution in the world." Bright stresses that his interest is in, "how politics was practiced, how power relations were organized and ordered and how these practices, forged in the everyday conduct of politics, shaped the environment and conditioned the terms of survival for all political practitioners." (p. 29) In his three main chapters, Bright looks at the patronage politics of the Prohibition era, the political "reformers" who highlighted prison scandals as a successful campaign tactic in the 1940s, and the prison riot of 1952. His major thesis that politics and the prison impact each other in significant ways is clearly supported.

During Prohibition the prison became a source of patronage and the center of a flourishing illicit economy. Officials and prisoners worked together in a system which, while clearly corrupt, worked. Bright demonstrates that the patronage system which sustained the power of the Republican party was mirrored in the relationships between prison officials and the prisoners. The industrial prison model was designed to allow prisoners not only to do meaningful work but also to allow the prisons to make a profit. Though the repeal of Prohibition diminished the opportunities for illicit gain and the Depression prompted legislation to keep prison labor from interfering with the employment of the free, the system of patronage and negotiation continued in the prison.

Bright picks up the story with a scandal of 1944 in which a prisoner who was allowed out on a work detail escaped and committed several robberies and a murder. The incident and others like it allowed ambitious politicians to present themselves as reformers and win political office in this guise. But the calls for reform created a dangerous situation which would erupt in the early 1950s. A corrupt system that had worked was destroyed by reformers and academics, but no clear rules emerged to replace the old system. Bright argues that the riot of 1952 was a reaction to the absence of clear rules of negotiation between the prisoners and their keepers. "As the rules changed, prisoners saw the hierarchies of status and connection that had once organized prison life dismantled. The dense web of exchange that had bound keeper and kept together in forms of tacit, at times illicit collusion, came unraveled, leaving in its place greater caution, a mood of betrayal. And a feeling of helplessness." (p. 244)

Bright insists that he does not wish to generalize and that this is not a case study. His goal was to "study something for what it was. My intention has been to capture the specificity of the prison in its historical epoch and to understand how Jackson prison occupied space in the political geography of the state of Michigan over time." (p. 4) In this clearly defined task he succeeds. However, the introduction and the conclusion are both virtually impenetrable in their jargon and would seem to suggest that the intent is to do more than simply tell the story of one place and time. He mentions that he hopes to move from a Marxist perception toward Foucault's "understanding of power as a field of relational practices." But his text seems to demonstrate that Foucault's theories suffer from the lack of real-world testing. Bright notes in his conclusion that the riot demonstrated that the rhetoric on prison reform did not match the practice. "A rhetorical connection of means and ends in a strategy of correction was, by itself, not enough. It also had to work." (p. 299) Bright's work clearly demonstrates both that political rhetoric raises and shapes expectations and that policy ultimately will be judged by its efficacy. However, it is regrettable that Mr. Bright felt that his scholarly, well-argued and clear narrative could not stand on its own but had to be surrounded by fifty pages of wandering in the morass of obfuscation that is discourse theory.

Carolyn A. Conley University of Alabama at Birmingham
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Conley, Carolyn A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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