The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle

Michelle Brown
New York University Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




It is impossible to come in contact with commercial media and not be exposed to the specter of criminal justice as entertainment. Turn on the news and you can see car chases. Turn on afternoon fare and it is syndicated reality shows featuring people being chased down by police. Primetime offers serialized prison action-adventures, courtroom procedural dramas and yet more reality shows of sassy judges, valorous cops and children wheedling their way through the juvenile justice system. Crime, punishment, but not the root causes, are today part of the lexicon of distractions, and a book argues society is far worse for it.

In Ohio University instructor Michelle Brown’s book, The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle, the treatment of criminal justice as spectacle — as well as more insidious methods, such as making surveillance a televised affair — contributes to its devaluing, especially for classes of people least impacted by it.

Brown’s scan of these matters is fresh and important for people to grasp. Race and class distinctly define how people experience the criminal justice apparatus. In her view, those most removed from the jarring realities of law enforcement, trial and incarceration — white, middle-class Americans who do not endure the experiences of economically disadvantaged people of color — become passive supporters of the abuses heaped on these communities. The treatment of criminal justice as a television drama or a video-game title further desensitizes the population from precisely how brutal and unjust some practices are for other people. Thus, prison, corrupt police and unfair trials to whites may seem like the stuff of fantasy or, even worse, basis for street cred, but for Blacks and Latinos, such issues are real and can (and do) result in broken families, death and years in confinement.

Yet more appallingly, are the ways race and class shape the experience, both affect how society judges perpetrators, crime and punishment. To upper-class whites, who may lack the experience or clarity to understand convicting someone’s son, brother, father or husband to 20 years in prison is, in fact, two decades of life, believing in the sanctity of the law has a different gravity than for those who have historically faced discrimination, mistreatment of family and friends by the system and may not believe the philosophical foundations of equality and fairness never apply to them. Amid pundits and politicians demanding tough-on-crime jockeying, the full application of that intolerance is on display. What the callousness means in a few generations, especially if historical divides continue, is yet to be understood.

Brown’s way of telling these stories packs a real punch. While many researchers have plumbed for reasons why race and class so divergently distinguish life in the United States, The Culture of Punishment puts forward new information boldly and in a way everyone can understand.

Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice

Alexandra Natapoff
New York University Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Incidents such as that of activist Brandon Darby informing on fellow activists, and the Tulia, Texas drug arrests scandal are but two examples of a trend that law enforcement has increasingly relied on as a method for policing, but which is increasingly returning disastrous results. The use of individuals to provide information leading to arrests, in exchange for lesser charges, but whose offered details are often fraught with inconsistencies, is the subject of Alexandra Natapoff’s searing read Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

Use of snitches has been going on far longer than the Darby affair. African-American communities have seen law enforcement use informants to combat drugs and urban blight at the cost of community cohesion. In these neighborhoods, Natapoff says, police methods are more intrusive and the penal process treats young Black men harshly. Such tragedies make informants plentiful. The result of snitch culture in the Black community is essentially that police permit informants to engage in criminal activity, foment distrust in neighborhoods and encourage retaliation. In the end, informants do little more than destabilize Black communities and undercut police legitimacy as well as individuals’ belief in fairness.

However, it is the stories of desperation that dot Natapoff’s writing which are incredibly striking. Fundamentally, the author reminds us, informants are people trying to escape long jail sentences by providing assistance to police. Such a relationship lends itself to producing information as a matter of self-preservation, and that their continued performance will keep them out of jail and presumably able to break the law so long as they are of use to law enforcement. Therein lies the criminal justice conundrum, of what reliance on snitches says about the justice system itself.

The hip-hop culture is the best-known proponent of the ’stop snitching” phenomenon. The character of ’stop snitching,” the author suggests, is a symbol of the Black community’s distrust of police in the wake of the War on Drugs and the long sentences young Black men receive for what is often faulty testimony. Exploration of that relationship is offered here, and is probably one of the best presentations of why the music culture has been so associated with resistance to snitching.

The author acknowledges social movements have long known the problems caused by informants. In Snitching, Natapoff points out informants end up acting with impunity, and their use raises important constitutional questions related to interference with organized groups’ First Amendment rights. Political organizers should carefully note the behavior sanctioned for informants, as the actions now famous in the Darby case — most importantly accusations the two activists arrested were coaxed into illegal activity — have long been permitted of informants.

To be clear, the author is not opposed to the use of police utilizing plea bargaining of the nature described in the book. However, Natapoff argues law enforcement’s rampant use of informants has implications that threaten transparency and in some ways democracy.