Ironies of Imprisonment

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Welch, Michael (2005) Ironies of Imprisonment. Thousand Oaks, California & London, England: SAGE Publications.

Ironies of Imprisonment examines in-depth an array of problems confronting correctional programs and policies from the author's singular and consistent critical viewpoint. The book challenges the prevailing logic of mass incarceration and traces the ironies of imprisonment to their root causes, manifesting in social, political, economic, and racial inequality.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Todd R. Clear
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Discovery of the Penitentiary
Chapter 3. Critical Penology
Chapter 4. War on Drugs and Just War Theory
Chapter 5. Health Care Crisis Behind Bars
Chapter 6. Reproducing Prison Violence
Chapter 7. Ironies of Capital Punishment
Chapter 8. War on Terror and the Misuse of Detention
Chapter 9. Punitive Profit
Chapter 10. Confronting Corrections


"Michael Welch's book is an invitation to think. It is an invitation to grow intellectually and critically, a consumer of crime policy and an observer of he American scene. Written by a scholar who has dedicated his work to uncovering the hidden ironies in formal crime policy, this is a collection of essays of depth and significance"
--Todd R. Clear, Distinguished Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

"The American correctional system is too often misshaped by a toxic mixture of ideology, anti-intellectualism, wishful thinking, and structural interest. Michael Welch uses his substantial critical skills to illuminate how these various factors intersect to create policies and practices that produce, in the end, more injustice and less public safety. His sobering analysis deconstructs the rhetoric used to justify mass imprisonment and its unanticipated, disquieting consequences"
--Professor Francis T. Cullen, University of Cincinnati.

"Michael Welch has written a book which anyone who is looking for an alternative to conventional and conservative approaches to prisons and punishment should read. Welch provides the groundwork for the development of a penology which engages critically with the growing tensions and ironies of imprisonment."
--Professor Roger Matthews, Middlesex University, London, England

"This book builds on Michael Welch's earlier, excellent text, Punishment in America (1999). Welch sees this latest work as contributing to an emerging paradigm, which he terms 'critical penology.' As he notes: 'the thrust of critical penology exposes the linkages between the political economy and criminal justice system, creating a coercive prison apparatus serving the status quo.'

Welch also sets out 'to explore the ironies of imprisonment . . . to reveal the inconsistencies and contradictions of the American prisons while advancing further a critical penology.' In 10 chapters, he analyses the role of the modern prison in reproducing the withering, coruscating social order engendered by belligerent American capitalism. His analysis ranges from the history of the institution through to the challenge of confronting prisons in their present form. In addition, he devotes chapters to health care, the war on drugs, the ironies of capital punishment and prison privatization, which challenge liberal and commonsensical perspectives in these areas.

Welch provides a welcome corrective to the resurgent liberal model of prison violence rooted in a reductionist positivism which focuses on the pathological qualities of a few deranged prisoners and prison officers while ignoring the debased culture and institutional structures which legitimate and support the fear experienced by, and the politics of the modern prison, namely the processes through which the institution has become a key player in the authoritarian (and self-defeating) responses of successive Bush administrations to the events of September 11, 2001. Welch compares the war on terror with the war on drugs: 'both strategies are intricately linked to race and ethnicity and have produced an array of civil liberties violations compounded by unnecessary incarceration'

Looking at the prison from this angle might provide a more sociologically valuable, and analytical starting point for thinking about the institution and its role in the 21st century compared with the prevailing focus on risk management, evidence-led policy (whose evidence and what policy we might ask) and 'what works' which have become central to what passes for serious criminological debate on this area"
--Professor Joe Sim, Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom, in Punishment & Society: The International Journal of Penology.

It is always hard to know whether to recommend books about American imprisonment, even good ones like this, when there are so many books and reports on penal policy in England to read - and so little time to read anything. Michael Welch is an established and reputable scholar from Rutgers University (currently sojourning at the London School of Economics), who is tremendously upset and angry about the expansion of imprisonment in his country, the brutality of so many prison regimes, the immense racial disparities in sentencing - one third of all black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives - and the profound intellectual dishonesty with which contemporary American politicians defend the "gulag" they have created. This dishonesty frequently includes disparaging any sociologist or criminologist, no matter how scholarly, who dares to question the slogans and half-truths behind which the punitive politicians hide. Welch's book is his attempt to "answer back" and, as befits a book that seeks to challenge misinformation and propaganda, it sets great store by clarity of argument and stands or falls by whether it achieves it. In my view it does achieve it, and this is the virtue of the book in whatever country it is read in - anyone who reads it will be enabled to think more sharply about penal issues, and - if they also have the opportunity, the inclination and the courage - to ask more searching questions of the elites and interests who champion ever-increasing incarceration.

There are plenty of British voices warning us against prison expansion and telling us how to avoid it - but if you are still in need of a clearer picture of where we might indeed be going and of what we are up against, read Michael Welch.
--Professor Mike Nellis, Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde reviewed in VISTA

This book explores in an accessible and engaging way questions of central concern to criminologists, politicians, penal reformists and policy-makers,namely: What are prisons for? What purpose do they serve? In what conditions should prisoners be held? The book focuses on the United States and is aptly titled: Ironies of Imprisonment. Welch begins by stating that the USA believes it is the defender of human freedom, although its penal system denies freedom to a greater proportion of its citizens than any other democratic nation globally.

Welch begins by charting the historical development of the penitentiary and the asylum. He provides the reader with the conceptual and theoretical cornerstones of critical penology by examining the work of Bentham, Rusche and Kircheimer, Foucault plus the development of anarchist criminology. Furthermore, he critically analyses the war on drugs, the lack of health care provision, prison violence, capital punishment, the 'three strikes and you're out' policy and the war on terrorism. Moreover, under each chapter heading, he begins with a poignant incident or a case study of either what led to an individual committing a crime or how the criminal justice system has affected the individual's life, highlighting the futility of the time spent behind bars. It is by using poignant case studies that Welch reveals the ironies of imprisonment.

This book achieves its aim in demonstrating that the prison 'enterprise' is inhumane and unjust despite its attempt to deliver justice. It is by using the case studies that he shows how the discourse of rehabilitation gets lost in the process of warehousing the poor and the socially excluded. The consequences ofmprisonment have led to reduced state budgets for other spending such as on welfare, health and education. This collateral damage caused by mass imprisonment goes beyond the recognized effects of sentencing. Yet there is a silence around the perverse consequences of imprisonment; a general malaise around the way of thinking or not thinking about imprisonment.

Running throughout the book is the theme that although the prison in various guises has survived for over 200 years and has been a dominant institution in society, there is neither social order nor social peace within it. Welch questions our over-reliance on imprisonment and the apparent belief that this apparatus of social order and social control is indispensable to the modern world. He raises the question of whether we as a society can find a different and more humane strategy for responding to a phenomenon as socially complex and controversial as crime.

In sum, Welch sets out to explore the ironies of imprisonment in numerous prison policies and practices. He achieved this by cogently arguing throughout the book the inconsistencies and contradictions of imprisonment.
--Azrini Wahidin, University of Central England, in Criminology and Criminal Justice

In the introduction of Ironies of Imprisonment, Welch quotes the New York Governor George E. Pataki as stating that the 'root causes of crime are the criminals who engage it.' . . . Welch's point of departure then are the so-called ironies of imprisonment that are constitutive of and constituted by the waves of popular punitiveness and anti-intellectualism confronting 'radical' criminologists. Simply stated, the ironies of the title are those that turn the criminal justice system upon the poor and neglected, the very people whom it should be protecting. By examining them, Welch hopes to expose 'their root causes manifesting in social, political, economic and racial inequality.'

It consists of a collection of essays that explore the 'ironies of imprisonment' in a wide array of fields, ranging from health care in prisons to privatization via the war on drugs and terror . . . The book works much better as a collection of introductory essays that one can dip in and out of. Ironies of Imprisonment would sit comfortably alongside similar texts on an undergraduate course exploring the sociology of imprisonment.

It is an evidently impassioned and often highly readable text. It brings together some statistics and makes some powerful statements (in this respect I was reminded of Currie's Crime and Punishment in America). Its post9/11 perspective also allows Welch to comment on key and on-going changes to Western criminal justice systems. This is a fine book when taken as a collection of essays that can be read alongside a number of other texts."
-- Professor Michael Fiddler, Keele University, United Kingdom, British Society of Criminology Newsletter.