To say that prisons today are violent is not to romanticize the past. In the Middle Ages, it was not unheard of for thieves to have their heads shaved and boiling pitch poured on their scalps, or for those who fought in the presence of the king to have their hands chopped off and the stumps cauterized with redhot irons. The British historian Christopher Hibbert, in his classic book The Roots of Evil, unearthed examples of murderers being buried alive next to the corpses of their victims; of men being hung, drawn, and quartered, their entrails burned, their heads promenaded on pikes; of defendants being subjected to religiously inspired tests known as “ordeals,” involving such torments as sticking their arms in pots of boiling water or shoving their fists into nearmolten iron gloves, their bodies' reactions seen as signs from God of their guilt or innocence. Throughout Europe, well into the eighteenth century, there was nothing out of the ordinary in seeing the rotting, often mutilated, corpses of executed criminals adorning city gates, bridges, and other public gathering places. In much of the world, public executions, generally surrounded by elaborate rituals, remained a staple into the modern era.
To day, while dictatorships still routinely torture criminals and political dissidents, devising new techniques such as burning victims with acid and using electric drills on them, the imagery of state-sponsored sadism is less exotic in democracies. But the desire, perhaps even the need, to terrify and subjugate through brute force remains strong. Within the massive human warehousing system that now passes for American criminal justice—an archipelago of prisons and jails not just for the hardened adult criminals, who most everyone agrees should be sequestered behind bars, but also for the mentally ill, disturbed teenagers, drug addicts, and homeless neighborhood nuisances—violence is all too common. Sometimes, as with the hazing of new inmates at Virginia's Wallens Ridge prison, or the racial abuse targeting black inmates in northern Florida prisons, it occurs despite official policies, sometimes even despite the best efforts of reform-minded correctional adminis