Cruel and Usual: Pretrial Punishment in Jail

The Washington Monthly, December 1985.


John Irwin’s thesis is that American society uses jails to control and segregate the “rabble,” a subset of the poor and disadvantaged. Besides being destitute, the rabble are detached from the conventional social networks and behave in ways that the middle class finds objectionable or threatening. Members of the rabble are jailed not so much because of the seriousness of the crimes they commit as for the offensiveness of their behavior to middle-class sensibilities. Citing the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, authors of Regulating the Poor, Irwin tells us that “the contemporary jail is a subsidiary to the welfare organizations” that control the poor and defuse their threat to the status quo.