There is something disturbingly incongruous about this book. One feels somehow that the history of an institution so redolent of human misery ought to lie between forbidding grey covers, be a struggle to read of grim statistics in samizdat print on absorbent recycled paper. Instead here is a beautifully produced, lavishly illustrated and elegantly written text, full of fascinating detail.
There is a serious education to be had between these pages and one that needs be widely learnt. The prison generally does not work, whatever is meant by that banal phrase, and its extensive use does little credit to the communities that place reliance on it.
Norval Morris and David Rothman, themselves leading contributors to the relatively recent historical study of penal policy, have gathered here 14 chapters by major scholars in the field (including two they have written themselves). Each author tells a part of a story that does not pretend to complete coverage. This is the history of the prison in western society. There is a chapter on punishment in the ancient and medieval worlds - Greece, Israel, Rome and Western Europe - and the rise of the modern prison in Europe and North America at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century is told in generally rich detail.
The story spills over to Australia following the American war of independence and, to a lesser extent, the French penal colonies of New Caledonia and Guiana. There is even a reference or two, particularly appropriate given Russia's recent admittance to the Council of Europe, to - Tsarist penal reforms in the 19th century and the continuity of Soviet political imprisonment under Joseph Stalin in the 20th. The mainstream chronological accounts in the first half of the text are complemented by thematic essays in the second half - the imprisonment of women, delinquents and political dissenters, the continuing role of the gaols as human dustbins and, a nice touch to finish on, the literature of confinement from John Gay to Jean Genet.
The editors have clearly imposed a strict regimen on their contributors. The stories are told briskly within tight word limits. Aryeh Neier's chapter on political dissent reads like a catalogue of recent dissidents from around the world that he had heard of and Edgardo Rotman's breathless resume of the "Failure of Reform: United States 1865-1965" is unsatisfying. Se n McConville on England during the same period, admittedly a more manageable task, provides a more authoritative overview as does Lucia Zedner in her chapter on "Wayward sisters", the imprisonment of women on both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, theoretical discourse has been kept to a minimum. The inspirational ghost of Michel Foucault lurks in the bibliographies but seldom invades the text except, briefly, in Peter Spierenburg's essay on "The body and the state: early modern Europe", a chapter where he could scarcely be avoided.The editors are content to point out in their introduction that, for all his influence, Foucault was no historian.
By contrast with Foucault the accounts given here are punctuated by a wealth of carefully marshalled sequential evidence uncluttered by footnotes or a single bracketed citation. This could be, and occasionally is, disquieting, as when accounts overlap but do not quite tally. Randall McGowan, for example, has some 30,000 people being transported to the American colonies between 1718 and 1775. McConville agrees, though his 30,000 are between 1719 and 1772 and are from England alone. Spierenburg describes a total of 50,000 British convicts - English, Irish and, to a lesser extent, Scottish - being transported between 1718 and 1776. The differences are small and the accounts probably compatible, but one would have liked to have known on which sources each author was relying. But, generally speaking, the device works well. Excellent annotated bibliographies at the end of each chapter amply compensate for the absence of citations in the text and there are many informative illustrations.
Morris in his chapter on "The contemporary prison" provides the the most statesmanlike and disturbing overview. Following his edited blow-by-blow 24-hour diary account of prisoner No. 12345 incarcerated in one of the notorious mind-numbing roundhouses at Stateville, Illinois, he charts the extraordinary growth in the United States prison population over the past 30 years and the irresponsible politics that have generated the costly cancer: "Wars on crime and wars on drugs are regularly declared in powerful rhetoric promising the enemy's surrender. But success never attends these efforts; there is no victory and no armistice. Instead, a new war is declared, as if the previous war had never taken place - and not even the rhetoric changes."
It is not a far cry from the monomaniacal advocacy of the penitentiary as the remedy for all social evils described in Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont following their tour of America in 1831. In England, meanwhile, two centuries of progress have brought us from John Howard to Michael Howard.
Rod Morgan is professor of criminal justice in the faculty of law, University of Bristol.
The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society
Editor - Norval Morris and David J. Rothman
ISBN - 0 19 506153 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 489