Blogs > HNN > Phyllis B. Taylor: Review of Stephen Cox's The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison (Yale University Press, 2009)

Nov 21, 2009 4:33 pm

Phyllis B. Taylor: Review of Stephen Cox's The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison (Yale University Press, 2009)

[Phyllis B. Taylor is a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System and a Registered Nurse. She was also a consultant with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to help develop an Inmate Buddy System, men and women who are assigned to help those in prisons who are vulnerable because of illness and age,. She was also a resource person for the GRACE Project (Guiding Responsive Action in Corrections at End of Life) and presently coordinates a Pen Pal Program for inmates.]

The walls were huge, dark and threatening even for me, a Correctional Chaplain, as I approached the entrance to a state prison in Pennsylvania. I knew I would leave after a meeting and seeing some of the men incarcerated there. I could only imagine the terror for those who enter in handcuffs and shackles. It was with that perspective that I read Stephen Cox’s The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison.

The first part of the book looks at the development of the big prisons, or Big Houses, as we know them through the movies, music and other popular art forms. The author traces the evolution of these prisons as a replacement for public whippings, stocks and public hangings to the psychological pain of being controlled, isolated, humiliated and deprived of much that has meaning for men and women. Some of the big houses resemble Egyptian temples, Greek architecture, state houses and gothic designs which excited visitors but hid from the public the brutality behind the walls.

Although the history of the Big Houses was interesting, I was especially intrigued by the impact of these facilities on those incarcerated and those who work within the system. Stephen Cox describes how the system strips the person who enters from his humanity. It begins with the humiliation of a body search, lack of privacy while showering and using the toilet, becoming a number, receiving inmate clothing, hearing an orientation of the rules and then the assault on the senses of smell, sight and sound as the inmate enters the Big House for the first time. Cox looks at life behind the walls and well describes inmate food, utensils, and problems with contraband, bribes, living conditions, and convict labor that is often described as slave labor. And always there is the threat of violence. He has an entire chapter devoted to sex in a womanless world, either consensual or forced. He also looks as other ways humiliation becomes an art within these dungeon-like facilities.

I was glad the book also looks at the need for some form of cooperation between security staff and inmates, the keepers and the kept,for the safety of both. There are rules in every prison but also constant violations resulting in physical attacks and, in extreme cases, strikes or riots. Cox describes how administrations have to learn to maintain control with the smallest application of force. As examples of this, Cox examines two Big Houses, one controlled by the Warden (Statesville in Illinois) and the other controlled by the inmates (Jackson in Michigan). He also tracks those who worked to reform the Big Houses with industrial training, educational courses, lectures and other methods hoping to transform inmates into responsible citizens.

The last part of the book looks at prisons today and riots like the one in 1971 in Attica, New York, plus gangs, drugs and the impact of the closing of large psychiatric hospitals. Cox traces the move away from the Big Houses to the development of smaller prisons which are often in more rural areas and, in some cases, to the privatization of prisons. He also touches on improved training of correctional officers. However, the aura and mystery of the Big Houses continues through films.

The text, the extensive notes and works cited as well as the index makes this book a valuable resource for those concerned about prisons and jails. The 25 pages of photos make the text even more vivid. We need to know the past to understand the present and to fashion a system that is humane for those who are now incarcerated. As one who works behind the walls and razor wire, I feel an urgency to re-look at how we deal with those who break the law. The Big House is a valuable resource to understand the complexity of prisons historically and to challenge us as a society to try to transform people who are locked away out of sight.

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