Book Review: Going Up The River

Going Up The River:  Travels In A Prison Nation, by Joseph T. Hallinan

Having read a couple of books by the author before [1], I found it a bit surprising that he had written so much about prisons and that he had devoted himself to writing about them often.  This book is one I feel deeply ambivalent about.  Like the author, I have a considerable interest in prisons [2] going back to my youth, and though I have never (thanks be to God) been put in prison, I have visited them and taken a serious interest in their workings.  The author seems to be deeply hostile to the law and order mindset of the contemporary age, the disparity between drug offenses and other crimes, and the violence and brutality that often happen in prison, and yet the author’s discussions do not always lead the reader to the sort of liberal conclusions that the author would prefer, as I read much in the book that would urge a greater focus on the power of police guards and a lessening of the civil rights of prisoners in order to improve the safety of other inmates, which is perhaps not the sort of conclusion the author himself would draw from his travels and investigations.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into seventeen chapters.  In each of the chapters the author focuses on a different aspect of prisons in the United States and the complex ways in which our views of imprisonment have been shaped over the history of the United States.  In this book we see how criminals mostly spring from urban and minority populations but prisons are mostly in rural majority areas where they serve as vital backbones of the local economies.  We see how prisons are increasingly being run with a concern for saving money or even turning a profit, and how the sort of work that prisoners most appreciate is hard to find in some areas and also is viewed negatively by labor officials who view prison labor as a competitor to union workers in the making of worthwhile products.  We see the tension between interests prisoner rights and the protection of vulnerable prisoners that requires a certain amount of stern treatment from guards to keep order and the various ways that prisons have been viewed.  The author clearly has a bias, but he is also clearly seeking to understand the way that views of prisons and prisoners are shaped by concerns about recidivism and anxieties about safety and the expense of dealing with undesirable criminal elements.

I must admit that in reading this book a fair amount of my own ambivalence came from the fact that the author and I have a wide difference with regards to crime and punishment, but with some common concern about the rise of imprisonment to the point where more than a quarter of black men and almost a tenth of men and general will have some personal familiarity with prisons over the course of their lives.  I tend to view penalogy from the point of view of the Bible, which looks at criminals as owing a debt to their victims and not to some sort of amorphous society at large.  The author seems to think that drug penalties are too harsh, but I think that penalties for violent crimes and sex crimes are often too lenient in light of the suffering they leave behind.  Yet we can both agree that it is best when prisoners have some sort of practical work, have the opportunity for advancement and are treated and considered as human beings, if human beings who have sometimes done some very wrong things.  Perhaps if we were more reflective about ourselves, we would be more understanding towards prison and how we would want it to be if we would wish for imprisonment to be a focal point of punishment at all.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Going Up The River

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Invitation To A Beheading | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The House Of The Dead, Or Prison Life In Siberia | Edge Induced Cohesion

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