The best books on the origins of American prisons

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913
By Ashley Rubin

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

I wrote...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

What is my book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system – the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier.

Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light anxieties and other challenges of nineteenth-century prison administration that helped embed our prison system as we know it today.

The books I picked & why

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Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835

By Michael Meranze,

Book cover of Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835

Why this book?

This is one of the first books on prisons I ever read and it’s the one that got me hooked. It’s not just about prisons, though. Laboratories of Virtue is about the period during and after the American Revolution when the US moved away from colonial-era punishments into the beginnings of what we have today. It was a moment when we could have gone in a lot of different directions, but Meranze shows how we ended up with long-term incarceration as our go-to punishment for serious (and some not-so-serious) crimes.

He brings in developments in society generally, explaining how anxieties about theatre and crowds contributed to middle-class and elite reformers’ growing distaste for capital punishment and a preference for privately meting out punishment. This book is a great introduction to how punishment and penal trends are the products of changes in society and perceptions of crime, rather than a direct response to the crime itself.

The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941

By Rebecca M. McLennan,

Book cover of The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941

Why this book?

In The Crisis of Imprisonment, McLennan examines the role of labor in the early prisons through to the Second World War. Labor was central to the motivation for adopting prisons, but also to their regular routines and functioning. After the Civil War, however, labor unions and others opposed to prisoner labor became more effective at restricting the sale of prisoner-made products, which helped to undermine the order of prisons.

The second half of the book explores the question of how do you maintain order in prisons if its central lynchpin is no longer available. It also has rich discussions on resistance and protests both inside and outside of prisons (not everyone wanted prisons, even early on, or liked how they were organized, even the people running them) and on the origin of prisoners’ “civil death” or rights-less status. Bonus: I love the introduction to this book. The prison riot scene perfectly sets up the rest of the book and its larger argument.

Worse Than Slavery

By David M. Oshinsky,

Book cover of Worse Than Slavery

Why this book?

This is a horrifying book. It explores the rebirth of prisons after the Civil War in Mississippi, a rebirth that reimagined the purpose of prisons to be controlling and extracting labor from Black people. It is not an exaggeration to say prisons became a replacement for slavery in the South. The Southern States had prisons before the Civil War, but these prisons held mostly white people (Black people were typically punished by slave masters and overseers or via capital punishment when state authorities were involved).

These southern prisons were destroyed during the war and many such states lacked the funds to rebuild. These states also had other problems (from their point of view), namely a newly freed and enfranchised population of Black citizens. Oshinsky tells the story of how Mississippi (like the other Southern States) moved through several efforts at confinement (including convict leasing), built prisons on the grounds of former plantations, and rewrote the laws to ensure Black people would be convicted of petty crimes and sentenced to years of hard labor under abysmal conditions. This is a well-written book that is difficult to read at times because of the atrocities it describes.

Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control

By Nicole Hahn Rafter,

Book cover of Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control

Why this book?

Prisons were originally built for men (really, white men), not for women. But women were sent to prison, just not in big enough numbers to merit their own facilities until much later. Women were also viewed as a difficult population by reformers and prison administrators alike: Women who committed crimes were deemed so morally repugnant that they could not be rehabilitated, so the routines and purposes of prisons seemed not to apply to them (prisons were originally supposed to rehabilitate their prisoners).

As a small and unprofitable population (because they were assigned unprofitable labor like sewing and laundry), women prisoners were considered especially burdensome. Using the prison histories of three differently situated states, Rafter describes the experiences of incarcerated women and how those experiences were shaped by their unique position and the biases about women criminals.

Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice

By Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, Michelle Phelps

Book cover of Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice

Why this book?

Unlike my other recommendations, this book takes a longer historical view of the prison and also provides a more sociological framework for understanding trends in penal history, focusing on the prison but also its sister punishments like parole and probation. Breaking the Pendulum focuses on the full history of the prison in the United States, from its origins to now. But more importantly, it synthesizes the state-of-the-art knowledge from punishment studies about how to think about and understand punishment: points like recognizing geographical variation rather than focusing on the national picture and recognizing that even periods that seem to be fairly homogenous in their penal policies are actually periods with a lot of hidden debate.

From there, it moves away from the standard narrative of a pendulum swinging between punitive and rehabilitative or liberal and conservative approaches to punishment to a more accurate and mixed picture, and for thinking about how to change penal policy if one is so inclined. It’s a great book for stepping back from the detailed, fine-grained histories and appreciating the bigger picture and what it all means.

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