Michigan and the Great Lakes

The Powers that Punish

Prison and Politics in the Era of the "Big House", 1920-1955
Charles Bright


In a pathbreaking study of a major state prison, Michigan's Jackson State Penitentiary during the middle years of this century, Charles Bright addresses several aspects of the history and theory of punishment. The study is an institutional history of an American penitentiary, concerned with how a carceral regime was organized and maintained, how prisoners were treated and involved in the creation of a regime of order and how penal practices were explained and defended in public. In addition, it is a meditation upon punishment in modern society and a critical engagement with prevailing theories of punishment coming out of liberal, Marxist and post structuralist traditions. Deploying theory critically in a historic narrative, it applies new, relational theories of power to political institutions and practices. Finally, in studying the history of the Jackson prison, Bright provides a rich account, full of villains and a few heroes, of state politics in Michigan during a period of rapid transition between the 1920s to the 1950s .

The book will be of direct relevance to criminologists and scholars of punishment, and to historians concerned with the history of punishment and prisons in the United States. It will also be useful to political scientists and historians concerned with exploring new approaches to the study of power and with the transformation of state politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Finally Bright tells a story which will fascinate students of modern Michigan history.

Charles Bright is a historian and Lecturer at the Residential College of the University of Michigan.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . well grounded, intelligent, thoughtful, and uniquely instructive. It is a slice of history that explains much."
    American Historical Review
  • ". . . a theoretically sophisticated historical account of the origin, aims, and practices of the nation's largest and most imposing 'big house'—Michigan's Jackson State Penitentiary—from 1920 to 1950. . . . The Powers that Punish provides a penetrating history of one of the nation's most (in)famous penal institutions; the author's unique interpretive strategy should serve as an analytical model for future studies of correctional institutions."
    —Alexander W. Pisciotta, Kutztown University, American Journal of Legal History, Vol. XLII
  • "Bright's clearly written work is a well-researched microanalysis of the trajectories of power as expressed through the creation and administration of a mammoth state prison system. . . . Bright departs from a number of works by American historians who recently have been fixated on the early 19th-century prison experience, by examining what societal functions a prison performs during its maturity rather than at its birth. He effectively reveals how power, politics, and prisons combine at strategic junctures."
    —K. Edgerton, Choice
  • "Bright's summary view of crime and punishment in this century is insightful and timely."
    —Joseph F. Steelman, History: Review of New Books
  • "In this well-researched and thought-provoking volume, Bright . . . argues that prison life at Jackson, in the years 12920-1950, was the product of political life outside Jackson. Specifically, Bright digs into Michigan's history of the period to locate how political activity and scandals created not just the prison but life within it. . . . Bright's discussions of how prisons are organized and maintained, how penal practices are described and explained to the public, and how prisoners are treated and used to help maintain institutional and political order are great examples of how the past informs the prisons."
    ICCA Journal
  • ". . . should be added to the reading list of anyone interested in corrections, Michigan history, or penal philosophy."
    Journal of American History
  • ". . . a real contribution to the historical literature on prisons and punishment . . . ."
    Law and Politics Book Review
  • "[Bright's] adroit blending of sociology, psychology, political science, and local history demonstrates the dynamic interrelationship of penal theories and political agendas of Michigan's governors, attorney generals, party leaders, and corrections officials as Jackson's penitentiary, the largest walled institution in the world, became the laboratory for their rehabilitative programs. . . . [A] fascinating narrative institutional history."
    Michigan Historical Review

News, Reviews, Interviews

Review Law and Politics Book Review | 4/1/1997

Product Details

  • 336 pages.
  • 6 photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2010
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02311-0

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