The Culture of Punishment

Prison, Society, and Spectacle

260 pages

10 illustrations

October, 2009

ISBN: 9780814791004



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Michelle Brown is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tennessee and Fellow at the Indiana University Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions and author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle.

All books by Michelle Brown

America is the most punitive nation in the world, incarcerating more than 2.3 million people—or one in 136 of its residents. Against the backdrop of this unprecedented mass imprisonment, punishment permeates everyday life, carrying with it complex cultural meanings. In The Culture of Punishment, Michelle Brown goes beyond prison gates and into the routine and popular engagements of everyday life, showing that those of us most distanced from the practice of punishment tend to be particularly harsh in our judgments.

The Culture of Punishment takes readers on a tour of the sites where culture and punishment meet—television shows, movies, prison tourism, and post 9/11 new war prisons—demonstrating that because incarceration affects people along distinct race and class lines, it is only a privileged group of citizens who are removed from the experience of incarceration. These penal spectators, who often sanction the infliction of pain from a distance, risk overlooking the reasons for democratic oversight of the project of punishment and, more broadly, justifications for the prohibition of pain.


  • “Michelle Brown’s book (2009) offers an insightful application of Foucauldian insights (from, e.g. 1975/1995) to the nature of disciplinary power in America. The book should be praised as much for its theoretical insights as for its applicability; the author considers contemporary media, the War on Terror, and other current trends in American Punishment. The result is a book that seamlessly unites theoretical analysis and informed discussion of these facts in a way that not only diagnoses problems with this system, but also suggest solutions to these problems.”

    —Metapsychology Online Reviews

  • “A deeply insightful and profoundly disturbing dissection of the culture of American penality.”

    —David F. Greenberg, author of Crime and Capitalism

  • “In this important challenge to dominant sociological and cultural understandings of punishment, Brown analyzes the construction of popular ideas about punishment, especially incarceration. Demonstrating that ordinary citizens play a central role in the construction and distribution of pain, she shows how mass imprisonment damages society and, ultimately, the practice of democracy. Brown’s passionate discussion of penality beyond prison walls pushes us to rethink traditional concepts of responsibility, and it opens up a way to escape from America’s dysfunctional prison policies.”

    —Nicole Rafter, author of The Criminal Brain

  • "Brown provides a rich and timely cultural analysis of the cultural conditions under which punishment is constituted. It will, no doubt, be a welcomed addition to reading lists of students and scholars in criminology and cultural studies alike."

    Crime, Media, Culture