here are now 1.3 million Americans in state or federal prisons, a record, Joseph T. Hallinan reports. Each week the rolls swell by another 1,000 inmates enough to fill two brand-new prisons. Reading Going Up the River is a bone-chilling experience less so for its depiction of the brutality rampant inside America's prisons than for its documentation of the public's enthusiasm for building and filling them. So common is the prison experience in America today, Hallinan writes, that the federal government predicts that one of every eleven men will be imprisoned during his lifetime. For black men, the figure is even higher more than one of every four. With Texas as his starting point, Hallinan crisscrossed the country to visit prisons old and new, public and private, to interview wardens, inmates, guards, social workers and others whose lives are directly affected by our national compulsion to punish. Hallinan is no bleeding heart. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter makes it quite clear that many who are in prison should be there. But he questions a system that is built on fear, anger, political opportunism and private-sector profiteering. (A single prison pay phone, Hallinan points out, can turn a profit of $12,000 a year.)Hallinan also looks at recent laws that mandate long minimum sentences for relatively minor crimes. While such draconian terms may be popular with the public, they are enormously costly to carry out. In spite of his grim subject matter, Hallinan is at times a lyrical writer. Here's how he describes a night scene outside the prison community of Beeville, Texas: There are no towns for miles around, and come sundown the world goes inky black, and the only way you can tell the earth from the sky is that the sky is where the stars begin. It is questionable how loudly Hallinan's voice will be heard by people who have just elected a president first made famous for being tough on criminals. Still, Going Up the River is so well-documented, reasonably argued and eloquently written that it may do for penal reform what Silent Spring did for environmental awareness and what The American Way of Death did for curbing depredations by the funeral industry.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.