In "Violence and the Word," Cover argues that the written and verbal "interpretations" of the law that judges use to sentence those convicted of crimes inevitably lead to acts of physical violence. To have any power, the law must be enacted in the physical world. This enacting is not innocent, much as the judge in the courtroom might be shielded from its worst aspects.
Looking at sentencing from the point of view of the prisoner, the prisoner understands that his body is subjected to all sorts of coercion. He can't not comply with the order, for example, that he go to prison: he knows will be dragged out, probably beaten, and possibly killed if he does not walk out as commanded. In prison, beyond being locked up, his body is subject to various forms of violence from guards and other prisoners.
Cover wants his readers to understand the very physical notion of justice, which centrally involves control of a human body. As Cover puts it,
The "interpretations" or "conversations" that are the preconditions for violent incarceration are themselves implements of violence. To obscure this fact is precisely analogous to ignoring the background screams or visible instruments of torture in an inquisitor's interrogation. The experience of the prisoner is, from the outset, an experience of being violently dominated, and it is colored from the beginning by the fear of being violently treated.
Cover emphasizes the disconnect between the judge's perception of a sentence and a prisoner's. If the judge tends to overlook the violence inherent in sentencing, the prisoner tends to feel it in a magnified way.
Just as the torturer and victim achieve a "shared" world only by virtue of their diametrically opposed experiences, so the judge and prisoner understand "punishment" through their diametrically opposed experiences of the punishing act.
Cover is at pains to emphasize the reality of the violence judges inflict:
The judges deal pain and death.... From John Winthrop through Warren Burger they have sat atop a pyramid of violence, dealing.... In this they are different from poets, from critics, from artists. It will not do to insist on the violence of strong poetry, and strong poets. Even the violence of weak judges is utterly real—a naive but immediate reality, in need of no interpretation, no critic to reveal it.
Having discussed the way the law deals in coercion of the human body, Cover leaves it to readers to experience increased empathy toward the incarcerated and perhaps to try to alleviate some of the pain and fear inherent in the experience. The experience of the victims is worse than we can imagine: a measured dose of punishment can go a long way, Cover argues.