Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014)

Robert-Ferguson-Inferno-Punishment-Prisons-DanteColumbia Law professor Robert A. Ferguson published a study of the theory informing American systems of punishment in penal institutions. Calling for a new model that emphasizes correction over condemnation, Ferguson writes, “Punishment is a reflexive response to misbehavior, and punishers in their anger are always spontaneously at the ready. Rehabilitation requires thought, a plan, work, and the willingness to probe slow changes in more mundane objects of attrition. It will always be easier to ask for punishment than to institute a treatment program in a prison system where punishment comes first. The answer, to the extent that we can give one, lies in something separate, something either beyond or after punishment.

“The Divine Comedy is a limited guide, but it does reveal the pernicious parameters in the psychology of punishment and gives a response to them. [. . .] Criminal justice has gone astray, lost in a dark wood of its own making. It is time, more than time, to find a way out.” — Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, 249.

From David Cole’s review in the New York Times: “[Ferguson] insists that the only way out is to reconceptualize punishment. Invoking the circles of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Ferguson argues that we need to reorient our prisons away from punishment and debasement and instead model them on Purgatorio, where individuals are restored to heaven through the care and love of others.” — David Cole, “Punitive Damage,” New York Times Sunday Book Review (May 16, 2014)

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