The Big House.

Author:Wilkinson, Molly
Position:Book review

The Big House, by Stephen Cox, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 2009, 222 pp.

What image floats into your mind when you think of the term "Big House?" A fortress? A self-contained city? A place where hardened criminals went to do "hard time?" Stephen Cox, a literature professor, writes an interesting account of how the cultural image of the "Big House" has affected the imagination of the American public for more than a century.

The Big House is the 13th book in a Yale University Press series called Icons of America. The collection consists of books that focus on the influence of one iconic phenomenon. Starting in the early 20th century, the term Big House became part of the underworld slang. It described prisons housing more than 1,000 inmates. Sing Sing, Alcatraz, Stateville (Ill.), Jackson (Mich.) and San Quentin exemplify this image. The architectural presence was of a huge, stone building overpowering the surrounding landscape. Surrounded by high walls and towers, it was an impressive sight and created a sense of pride in some townspeople. In the early days, according to Cox, visitors poured through the iron gates into the halls of the Big Houses, buying products and mementos from the inmates.

The image carried over from architecture to practicality. Prisons were built as self-contained units. They were "cities" across America constructed with a dual purpose: to present to the community a statement of penological wonder and to impress upon its inhabitants total control of their daily lives. Inmates were shaved, numbered, and dressed "in stripes." These reality-based images have been heavily used in movies (Shawshank Redemption, Bird Man of Alcatraz, Brubaker, etc.), cartoons, music (Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison," Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," etc.) and other media. People still think Big House when they see a caricature of a striped-suited man with a shaved head and in big shoes with a number indicating his new identity painted on the back of his shirt. They hear in their minds the clang of the gates as they shut behind whoever enters the prison walls. And they still marvel at the kitchens, gyms, infirmaries and other (real or imagined) buildings within the compound of the Big House.

In chapters 3, 4 and 5, Cox describes the life of the convict and the transforming power of the Big House. Correctional officers will relate to these chapters because they clearly explain potential dangers as well as real hardships of working on...

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