Opening Up the Big House


In his contribution to Yale University Press' series on icons of American culture, Liberty editor and U.C.-San Diego literature professor Stephen Cox takes us inside The Big House. By that he means not prisons in general but the now-receding wave of huge institutions designed to be isolated worlds of social control, such as Sing Sing and Alcatraz. He takes an anecdotal and discursive walk through the practices and aesthetics of huge prisons and our attitudes toward them, covering food, uniforms, rape, reformers, and the frequent easiness of "hard labor."

Cox gently mocks those who, blinded by Foucault, believe that huge prisons really were "utopias of isolation and control"; he shows exactly how out of control big prisons could get with gripping accounts of hideously violent rebellions. Big houses couldn't live up to their proponents' promises or opponents' fears. As Cox concludes, "Models of society that proceed on the assumption that total control is possible are rendered ridiculous by the real experience of supposedly total institutions."