by Michelle Brown. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 272pp. Cloth $79.00. ISBN 9780814799994. Paper $24.00. ISBN: 9780814791004.

Reviewed by Jonathan Simon, Adrian A Kragen Professor of Law, UC Berkeley.


After many decades in which mass incarceration grew in the United States, with little political debate or academic scrutiny, the super-sizing of the American prison population is the subject of a great deal of scholarship, media attention, and in the context of an epic economic crisis, at least some political debate. The Culture of Punishment brings to that enlarged discussion of punishment a convincing insistence that we enlarge even further the horizon of what we think and talk about, when we talk about punishment, to the realm of culture.

Most scholarship by criminologists and sociologists of punishment not surprisingly focuses on penal institutions themselves, closely related legal and political structures, and the politics behind mass incarceration as a project. But Brown, tracking a cultural theme in the study of punishment that goes back to Durkheim, and has been expounded in recent years by David Garland and Philip Smith, points to a panoply of different sites where images and experiences of punishment are invested with meaning and broadcast or exposed to large swaths of the public who have never been inside a prison or studied sentencing legislation. Brown makes a compelling case that making sense of contemporary penality requires us to extend our theories and empirical comparisons to these less academically studied sites.

In an opening chapter on “prison theory,” Brown insightfully reviews recent efforts to theorize the rise of mass incarceration and suggests that these efforts point to, but rarely acknowledge, the importance of what she calls “penal spectatorship.” Much punishment and society literature explores the role of punishment in shaping politically privileged subjectivities, but ignores the domains in which much of this spectatorship takes places. Taking them seriously will require, she suggests, not simply engaging with these domains, but with scholarship in cultural studies, and the humanities more generally, that concerns itself with punishment and more broadly with the social production of pain.

One domain in which penal spectatorship is most regularly and broadly constituted is popular visual media like film and television. As Richard Sparks argued many years ago in the classic, Television and the Drama of Crime criminologists should be concerned with “the position of crime as a discursive area in contemporary life,” a subject that required watching television (1992, p.17). As one who does not watch a lot of television (a preference that may be over represented in academic life), I would [*691] not have thought that penal spectatorship was as readily available through this media and movies, as Brown documents. In one of the most important contributions of the book to both punishment and society literature and media studies, Brown moves up beyond the prison as signifier to follow the elements of pain, judgment, discipline and punishment associated with the prison as they are transformed in the often dreamlike associative work of popular culture. Thus it is not only movies like the much admired, Shawshank Redemption (1994) or HBO’s critically acclaimed series, Oz (1997), but also television serials like Lost, Battle Star Galactica, or even Ricky Gervais’ comedy of business manner, The Office, in which we can find invocations of the penal subject and thus engage in a kind of penal spectatorship.

An even more surprising site, and one of the book’s strongest chapters, takes on penal spectatorship in the increasingly available experience of prison tourism, where famous but now closed prisons, like San Francisco’s Alcatraz, are reopened as museums, and sometimes develop popular extensions like Halloween night tours or prison sleepovers. Brown provocatively suggests that as banalizing as such tourism might be to the contemporary reality of mass incarceration, the experience promotes questions that come disturbingly close to the heart of the political and moral critique of mass incarceration, like why prisons are places where ghosts might remain, and what it means that so many more such spaces have been produced in contemporary society. While Brown does not take a comparative perspective here, much more could be done by examining prison tourism outside the US. For example, the 19th century Kilmainham jail in Dublin is now a museum at which the guides point out both the Panopticon-like design of its main Victorian cell block and its role housing both condemned prisoners from the Easter 1916 uprising, and also the political prisoners of the civil war years.

Another and very recent domain of penal spectatorship with an obvious but rarely noted connection to contemporary mass incarceration is the war on terror. The “new war prisons,” as Brown usefully denotes them, provide a fascinating mirror of US penality. These spaces of detention and sometimes torture were exposed to the broader public through the global scandal that arose regarding degrading practices at US new war prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and at in Iraq. While much current debate acts as if these prisons were exceptional, geographically distant, and functionally distinct from the practice of mass incarceration at home, as objects of penal spectatorship they are in fact quite continuous. The basic penal spaces and buildings shown in the frequently recycled file footage of the military prison there reflect precisely the look and procedures of high security “supermax” prisons all over the US.

Although Brown writes admiringly of political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s much discussed ideas about the “state of exception” and camps, the thrust of her analysis about the commonalities between war prisons and mass incarceration prisons is a useful corrective to Agamben’s misleading notions of legality. After all, [*692] death rows and supermax prisons are spaces saturated with legality and sometimes super due process. Brown is convincing and inspiring in suggesting that the normative debate about the limits of executive power in the name of terrorism risk management in the context of the new war prisons has great potential salience for our still embryonic efforts to set new public limits to mass incarceration in the name of managing crime risks. Indeed one of the most important methodological insights of the book is that by relaxing the rigid restraints on inquiry that an overly “realist” account of punishment imposes, we can uncover important resources for rethinking punishment.

A final substantive chapter takes up social science work on punishment and prisons, or what she calls “prison science,” in the decades since Robert Martinson’s Public Interest article “What Works” (1974) played such an outsized role in the public justification of the shift away from rehabilitation as the core of state penology and toward penal incapacitation. Brown looks at Martinson’s essay as an event in penal spectatorship, one that was used to define a new common sense, one that Martinson himself vigorously rejected. She traces a line running from Martinson to the continuing place for “what works” criminology, or as it is more often called today “evidence based” research on penal programs.

Not unlike much of the cultural theory that the book advocates, The Culture of Punishment may be a little too preoccupied with arguing for its own relevance rather than simply demonstrating it by using that perspective to unpack the meaning of contemporary mass incarceration. Given Brown’s keen insights about penal spectatorship and gifts as a writer, we can hope for follow up studies in this vein. Here, however, readers with an interest in pursuing this kind of research will benefit enormously from the bibliography and the lucid discussion of both penal and cultural theorists. The Culture of Punishment deserves careful study by all serious students of punishment and society.


Martinson, Robert. 1974. “What Works? -- Questions and Answers about Prison Reform,” Public Interest 35: 22-54.
Sparks, Richard. 1992. Television and the Drama of Crime. Open University Press.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Jonathan Simon.