The Crisis of Imprisonment

By Rebecca M. McLennan,

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

Book description

America's prison-based system of punishment has not always enjoyed the widespread political and moral legitimacy it has today. In this groundbreaking reinterpretation of penal history, Rebecca McLennan covers the periods of deep instability, popular protest, and political crisis that characterized early American prisons. She details the debates surrounding prison reform,…

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2 authors picked The Crisis of Imprisonment as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Tracking the movement for prison reform to American shores, McLennan documents the grim consequences of grafting incarceration with capitalism.

In her telling, the North’s contract labor system took root amid the new industries of Jacksonian America and flourished in the Gilded Age alongside the South’s proto-plantation convict lease camps. Vast penal industrial plants in almost every state proved how foolhardy early reformers had been to think a state enterprise could long abide by its reforming ideals.

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…

From Ashley's list on the origins of American prisons.

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