Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America

Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America

Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America

Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America

Synopsis

Liberty's Prisoners examines how changing attitudes about work, freedom, property, and family shaped the creation of the penitentiary system in the United States. The first penitentiary was founded in Philadelphia in 1790, a period of great optimism and turmoil in the Revolution's wake. Those who were previously dependents with no legal standing--women, enslaved people, and indentured servants--increasingly claimed their own right to life, liberty, and happiness. A diverse cast of women and men, including immigrants, African Americans, and the Irish and Anglo-American poor, struggled to make a living. Vagrancy laws were used to crack down on those who visibly challenged longstanding social hierarchies while criminal convictions carried severe sentences for even the most trivial property crimes.

The penitentiary was designed to reestablish order, both behind its walls and in society at large, but the promise of reformative incarceration failed from its earliest years. Within this system, women served a vital function, and Liberty's Prisoners is the first book to bring to life the experience of African American, immigrant, and poor white women imprisoned in early America. Always a minority of prisoners, women provided domestic labor within the institution and served as model inmates, more likely to submit to the authority of guards, inspectors, and reformers. White men, the primary targets of reformative incarceration, challenged authorities at every turn while African American men were increasingly segregated and denied access to reform.

Liberty's Prisoners chronicles how the penitentiary, though initially designed as an alternative to corporal punishment for the most egregious of offenders, quickly became a repository for those who attempted to lay claim to the new nation's promise of liberty.

Excerpt

When the War with Great Britain finally came to an end, Pennsylvania’s legislature moved quickly to enact what it had first approved in the state constitution of 1776: major revisions to the penal code to reduce the number of capital crimes and put an end to harsh punishment. Under the newly democratic government, more men than ever before gained importance in the body politic. But the Revolutionary promises—life, liberty, happiness—were quickly foreclosed by a revised penal system that disguised its violence under the rubric of humanitarianism, replaced slavery as the disciplinary authority in African American lives, and prized the property rights of the few over the human rights of the many. a diverse class of white men, from ruling elites to middling artisans, cast their lot with the penitentiary system, hoping it would make them better men, bring back the gender roles of old, cultivate industrious habits, contain the threat of free blacks and immigrants, and regulate illicit sex. It was a tall order, made more challenging by the resistance of lower-class men working as watchmen, keepers, and guards who refused their orders, African Americans who fought back against unjust laws and people who claimed possession of them, Irish immigrants who stole items of small value to survive after serving out or abandoning their indentures, and working women who refused to give up their jobs and retreat from public life into the domestic fantasy of republicanism. When economic depression struck and crime rates spiked, the underclasses seemed more threatening than ever before. Elites did not stand idly by but rather invoked the authority of enlightened justice to reassert hierarchy and order. They used punishment to classify and segregate people along lines of difference—crime, class, gender, race, and age—in order to identify those who might one day stand as citizens if properly reformed.

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