Crime and Punishment

An introduction to our special feature on Crime and Punishment. 


Delve into the study of American crime and punishment and you will soon find yourself confronting statistics. You will learn that the United States incarcerates more people—over two million—than any other country, and that the US is home to only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. You will learn that police in England and Wales fatally shot fewer people over a 24-year period ending in 2015 than American police officers killed in the first 24 days of 2015. And you will learn that the US runs the largest system of immigrant detention in the world, a system that detains 30,000 people on a daily basis and that confined more than 300,000 people in 2017 alone. Each of these numbers is damning.[1]

What lends power to all of them, however, is the comparative force behind the numbers. Indeed, although it often goes unmentioned, a comparative framework structures many of the most important figures that are used to clarify the dimensions of crime and punishment in the United States. It is in part by looking abroad to Europe that we highlight the alarming rate of American police brutality. It is in part by measuring the US prison population against the rest of the world’s that we underscore the extent to which mass incarceration is a genuinely massive problem. As we discuss criminal justice and the lack thereof in the United States, we are speaking a comparative language that we frequently neither realize nor acknowledge.

This special issue aims to advance the study of crime and punishment by bringing the matter of comparison to the fore. It includes contributions that examine issues related to crime and punishment in European countries and the United States individually, as well as contributions taking a transnational approach that investigate how such issues have reverberated across Europe and the United States (and beyond) simultaneously. By placing European and transnational accounts alongside works that explore the better known and studied sides of American crime and punishment, we seek to demonstrate that there is something essential to be gained from a self-consciously comparative inquiry. It is our contention that as we widen the scale of our analysis and begin to look comparatively, we are able to glean important new insights into the ways in which Europeans and Americans have understood, experienced, and responded to crime and punishment in interrelated yet distinctive ways.

Investigating crime and punishment comparatively is by no means a new conceit—Alexis de Tocqueville traveled from France to the United States in 1831 on a mission to inspect America’s prisons—yet the need for more comparative work is newly urgent.[2]  In both the US and Europe, questions demanding answers abound in discussions of crime and punishment. Why does racism remain such a rampant feature of the American criminal justice system, with African Americans and Hispanics overrepresented among the US prison population? What explains the relative lack of attention to the ways in which gender and sexuality intersect with crime and punishment across the United States, even as women have become the country’s fastest growing incarcerated population? Turning to Europe, how should we make sense of recent events in Chemnitz, Germany, the scene of violent protests against “criminal immigrants” led by far-right and neo-Nazi demonstrators? Adopting a comparative perspective helps us to approach these questions anew; it spurs us to interrogate the assumed national narratives that are too often taken for granted in debates over crime and punishment.[3]

The comparative contents of this issue are also published with contemporary movements for criminal justice reform in mind. No less than crime or punishment itself, these movements are not bound by the borders of a single nation-state. In the US, proposals for reforming criminal justice policies—up to and including proposals for prison abolition—have both multiplied and been mainstreamed in recent years: not only the organizers of the 2018 US prison strike but also President Barack Obama and even prominent conservative donors, such as the Koch brothers, have urged the reform of America’s justice system. Similar calls have emanated throughout Europe. In Britain, for example, MPs and news outlets alike have demanded responses to racist sentencing practices and increasing numbers of prison suicides. In the midst of these rising calls for reform, our issue looks to provide grist for criminal justice activists on both sides of the Atlantic.[4]

The work included here forms an expansive special feature. Produced by contributors with a wide variety of expertise, this feature covers a vast array of topics. The expansiveness is not incidental. To the contrary, as the contributions that follow make clear, the study of crime and punishment is bound up with the study of a host of other subjects, ranging from social welfare to immigration to imperialism, from law to race relations to education. It is our hope that this issue helps readers to understand how crime and punishment have long been and continue to be entangled with virtually every side of human existence. And to grasp the haunting truth behind the words of an incarcerated student quoted in Julia Goggin Gardiner’s essay: “I am part of your hate, of your love, of your law, and of your ideas about poverty.”

In “Notes on Teaching in Prison,” Gardiner relates the meaningfulness and joy that both she and her students have experienced though her 25 years of teaching in prison, but she also contemplates some of the many challenges that teaching in a highly controlled environment produces: from anxiety to finding ways of connecting the incarcerated women to the outside world when the modern technology we take for granted is off-limits.

What is carceral geography? In her interview “A Carceral Geographer’s Examination of the Prison Boundary,” Jennifer Turner sheds lights on the role of carceral institutions in relation to society as a whole and on carceral boundaries and movements. Turner further illustrates how detrimental carceral sites are for geographical thinking about space-making, home-making, and the role of state power and governance, among others, and how carcerality becomes the framework and theoretical lens through which to explore different empirical cases.

Nicole Callahan discusses a pressing curricular controversy in “Why We Must All be Philosophers: Ethical Education and A Poetics’ of Freedom.” In her essay, she questions what we mean when we say a “Liberal Arts Education,” and how such education helps us to become valuable citizens. She also questions how citizenship, along with its responsibilities, plays out in terms of reintegrating the formerly incarcerated, and how the right education brings meaning to the words social justice and freedom. The accompanying syllabus and course outline for “Humanities Texts, Critical Skills” focuses precisely on readings through a lens of social justice and reintegration.

In “Immigrant Bashing Fuels Trans-Atlantic Extremism,” David L. Philipps’ analyzes Trump’s politicized humanitarianism, revealing how the “America First” policy excludes refugees and migrants when sixty-nine million people are displaced by violent conflict. In response to population flows, nationalist movements in Europe and the US have gained strength, causing some countries to seal their borders in violation of international humanitarian law. Further demonization of these refugees has legitimated violent extremism, challenging the principles of an open society and cultural diversity.

David Hernandez examines the much-sensationalized “migrant caravan” traveling from Honduras to the United States in “Habitual Punishment: Family Detention and the Status Quo,” which has been viewed with vitriol and potential violence, making an expansion of family detention facilities, already teeming from record-setting apprehensions and asylum claims, likely. “Habitual Punishment,” in exploring the family migration “crisis,” will ask, not why Central Americans are fleeing north, but why the U.S. is reluctant to ask why.

Anne E. Kerth interrogates similarities between convict leasing and modern mass incarceration in “The Strange Career of the Artisanal Penitentiary,” focusing on the state of South Carolina’s pilot incarceration model, which revolved around the creation and employment of skilled laborers. Although ultimately failing, this model reflected a significant break from the state’s previous methods of punishment and incarceration: a centralized state penitentiary, which was influenced by decades of racial tensions, focused on control of the racial “other.”

In “Damon’s Case and the Meaning of British Antislavery,” Padraic X. Scanlan’s historical analysis of the British justice system, which considered itself impartial and universal, reveals a clear divide between the treatment of white and black subjects under the law. This treatment took a turn for the worse when slavery ended in the British colonial empire and the “criminalization of black freedom began.” Infractions committed by former slaves, which previously would have resulted in a beating, were now considered crimes that were subject to new punishments.

Sarah Armstrong seeks to interrogate binary-like classifications of high- or low-punishment societies by exposing the mass imprisonment concept outside of the US. In “The Problem of Punishment in a Progressive Society,” Armstrong investigates inasmuch as the US prison system can learn from its European counterparts where punitive strategies often have been replaced by measures that allow the reintegration of individuals into society, thereby enriching our understanding of alternate practices of punishment.

Victoria Troy’s article “Needs of Mothers in the Criminal Justice System: Preliminary Findings from a Photovoice Study,” argues that maternal imprisonment often focuses on the developmental impact on offspring, but much more rarely on difficulties faced by parents in the CJS. Troy argues that much more holistic approaches to the target population need to be developed that also address its mental wellbeing and does not focus on parenting alone.

Finally in “Rationing Justice: Risk Assessment Instruments in the American Criminal Justice System,” Julie Ciccolini and Cynthia Conti-Cook provide an overview of automated decision tools that ought to determine the future of suspected criminals. While such instruments at first glance may appear to make accurate predictions based on precision data science, the authors argue that decisions are still subjective and that assessments, therefore, should play a limited role in the criminal justice system.



Christopher M. Florio is a Mellon Research Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities and a Lecturer in the Department of History at Columbia University. He is at work on a book about the problem of poverty during the Anglo-American age of slave emancipation.

Nicole Shea is the Director of the Council for European Studies at Columbia University and the Executive Editor of EuropeNow.



“The Problem of Punishment in a Progressive Society” by Sarah Armstrong

“’Make the Nation Look at our Demands:’ The 2018 National Prison Strike and the Crises of Mass Incarceration” by Toussaint Losier

“Habitual Punishment: Family Detention and the Status Quo” by David Hernández

“The Strange Career of the Artisanal Penitentiary” by Anne Kerth

“Rationing Justice: Risk Assessment Instruments in the American Criminal Justice System” by Cynthia Conti-Cook and Julie Ciccolini

“Damon’s Case and the Meaning of British Antislavery” by Padraic X. Scanlan

“Needs of Mothers in the Criminal Justice System: Preliminary Findings from a Photovoice Study” by Victoria Troy


“Immigrant Bashing Fuels Trans-Atlantic Extremism” by David L. Phillips

“Notes on Teaching in Prison” by Julia Gardiner


“A Carceral Geographer’s Examination of the Prison Boundary: An Interview with Jennifer Turner” by Hélène B. Ducros

“Scottish Prisoners of War in Durham Cathedral: An Interview with Chris Gerrard” by Christopher P. Gillett

Visual Art

Transcending by Jesse Krimes


Excerpt from An African’s View of the World from Eden? by Inongo-vi-Makomé, translated from the Spanish by Layla Benitez-James


“Under Pressure” by Faruk Šehić, translated from the B/C/S by Mirza Purić


Five Poems by Marko Tomaš, translated from the B/C/S by Rachael Daum

Two Poems by Monika Herceg, translated from the B/C/S by Mirza Purić

Four Poems by Sylvia Beato


A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies, reviewed by Elizabeth Bishop

EuropeNow Daily

“Against Freedom: Scene 1” by Esteve Soler, translated from the Spanish by H.J. Gardner


“Why We Must All Be Philosophers: Ethical Education and A Poetics of Freedom” by Nicole Callahan

Syllabus: Humanities Texts, Critical Skills by Emily Bloom and Nicole Callahan



[1] World Prison Brief, “Highest to Lowest – Prison Population Total.”  Available at:, accessed 2 November 2018; ACLU, “Mass Incarceration.”  Available at:, accessed  2 November, 2018;  Jamiles Lartey, “By the numbers: US police kill more in days than other countries do in years,” The Guardian, 9 June 2015. Available at:, accessed 2 November 2018; Global Detention Project, “United States Immigration Detention.”  Available at, accessed 2 November 2018.

[2] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 305-306.

[3] NAACP, “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.”  Available at, accessed 2 November 2018; ACLU, “Women’s Mass Incarceration – The Whole Pie 2017.”  Available at, accessed 2 November 2018; Katrin Bennhold, “Chemnitz Protests Show New Strength of Germany’s Far Right,” The New York Times, 30 August 2018. Available at, accessed 2 November 2018; Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Nicole Shea, and Fabian Virchow, “Radicalism and Violence in Europe,” EuropeNow 21, October 2018. Available at, accessed 28 October 2018.

[4] Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, “Prison Strike 2018.”  Available at, accessed 30 October 2018; Gardiner Harris, “Obama, Pushing Criminal Justice Reform, Defends ‘Black Lives Matters,’” The New York Times, 22 October 2015. Available at; accessed 30 October 2018; Charles Koch Institute, “Criminal Justice Reform.”  Available at, accessed 2 November 2018; Owen Bowcott and Vikram Dodd, “Exposed: ‘racial bias’ in England and Wales criminal justice system,” The Guardian, 7 September 2017. Available at, accessed 30 October 2018; Simon Jenkins, “The UK justice system is in meltdown. When will the government act?”  The Guardian, 2 April 2018. Available at:, accessed 30 October 2018.


Photo: Face of lady justice or Iustitia – The Statue of Justice | Shutterstock
Published on November 8, 2018.


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