The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society

The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society

The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society

The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society


The word "prison" immediately evokes stark images: forbidding walls spiked with watchtowers; inmates confined to cramped cells for hours on end; the suspicious eyes of armed guards. They seem to be the inevitable and permanent marks of confinement, as though prisons were a timeless institution stretching from medieval stone dungeons to the current era of steel boxes. But centuries of development and debate lie behind the prison as we now know it--a rich history that reveals how our ideas of crime and practices of punishment have changed over time. In The Oxford History of the Prison, a team of distinguished scholars offers a vivid account of the rise and development of this critical institution. Penalties other than incarceration were once much more common, from such bizarre death sentences as the Roman practice of drowning convicts in sacks filled with animals to a frequent reliance on the scaffold and on to forms of public shaming (such as the classic stocks of colonial America). The first decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the full-blown prison system--and along with it, the idea of prison reform. Alexis de Tocqueville originally came to America to write a report on its widely acclaimed prison system. The authors trace the persistent tension between the desire to punish and the hope for rehabilitation, recounting the institution's evolution from the rowdy and squalid English jails of the 1700s, in which prisoners and visitors ate and drank together; to the sober and stark nineteenth-century penitentiaries, whose inmates were forbidden to speak or even to see one another; and finally to the "big houses" of the current American prison system, in which prisoners are as overwhelmed by intense boredom as by the threat of violence. The text also provides a gripping and personal look at the social world of prisoners and their keepers over the centuries. In addition, thematic chapters explore in-depth a variety of special institutions and other important aspects of prison history, including the jail, the reform school, the women's prison, political imprisonment, and prison and literature. Fascinating, provocative, and authoritative, The Oxford History of the Prison offers a deep, informed perspective on the rise and development of one of the central features of modern society--capturing the debates that rage from generation to generation on the proper response to crime.


For many readers, the most novel contribution of The Oxford History of the Prison may well be its demonstration that prisons do have a history. In the popular imagination, institutions of incarceration appear so monumental in design and so intrinsic to the criminal justice system that it is tempting to think of them as permanent and fixed features of Western societies. The massive quality of the buildings, with their walls and turrets jutting out of the landscape and visible over great distances, conveys immutability. Meting out punishment by a calculus of time to be served seems so commonsensical today, that it becomes difficult to conceive of a moment when prisons were not at the core of criminal justice.

In fact, the history of incarceration is marked by extraordinary changes. As the table of contents to this book indicates, before the eighteenth century the prison was only one part, and by no means the most essential part, of the system of punishment. Moreover, once invented and implemented, the prison underwent fundamental alterations in appearance and organization. In the 1830s prisons were organized around the principles of order and regularity and hence isolated each prisoner in a cell and enforced rules of total silence. By the early 1900s the institutions modeled themselves on the outside community, affording inmates the opportunity to mix in the yard and work in groups; the prison thus became a testing ground for judging readiness for release. All the while, over the course of the nineteenth century prisons began to specialize, so that juveniles entered one type of institution, women another, the mentally ill still another. The process continued into the twentieth century, with inmates eventually confined to minimum-, medium-, maximum-, or lately, maximum-maximum-security prisons according to the severity of their offense and the extent of their criminal record. Thus, the English prison of 1790 or the American prison of' l830 had little in common with the prisons of 1900 or 1990, regardless of whether the yardstick is the daily routine, the amount of time served, the methods of release, or as we shall see, the public's understanding of the purposes of confinement. In brief, prisons not only have a history, but a rich history.

Uncovering the History of the Prison

It is a tribute to recent scholarship that the contours of these developments are so well mapped. To create this book as recently as twenty-five years ago would have been impossible. Practically all of the contributors to this volume are pioneers in the field, and the results of their research began to appear only in the 1970s. Indeed, the historians' attention to the prison is so new that one has to ask why they were inspired to take up this subject in the first place.

Part of the answer rests in the emergence of a keen interest in social history and a determination to understand the organization of a society in terms not only of the activities of the elite (the leaders of government, diplomacy, and business) but also of the role of ordinary people, including workers, women, minorities, and even those who ended up in jails, prisons, and reformatories. Some of the inspiration for this analysis came from one of the founders of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim. Durkheim first . . .

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