Publication Date

July 16, 2015


Current Events in Historical Context

As the president prepares for his historic visit to a federal prison later today, we would like to direct him to the rich and varied scholarship on what historians have come to call the “carceral state.” Below, with assistance from Indiana University professors and graduate students who have been teaching students at Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis, we point to five important historical aspects of imprisonment in the United States, with links to recommended scholarly articles.

1)      “Mass incarceration”—the world-historically high levels of incarceration now prevalent in the US—is a relatively recent phenomenon, and marks a sharp break from the past. The Journal of American History has been one of the leading academic publications calling attention to this phenomenon. Just last month, the JAH published a special issue on “historians and the carceral state” and mass incarceration. This builds on the crucial 2010 article by Heather Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters,” Journal of American History 97 (2010): 703–34.

2)      Women are incarcerated too, and face special conditions and challenges. For example, two-thirds of incarcerated women have convictions for non-violent offenses, particularly drug crimes. Also, two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers, but too often women are silenced in the narrative of prison reform. Reproductive justice is a significant issue facing women in the correctional system. The early history of the female experience in the penitentiary is explored by Mara Dodge in her article “‘One Female Prisoner is of More Trouble than Twenty Males’: Women Convicts in Illinois Prisons,” Journal of Social History 32 (Summer 1999): 907–30.

3)      Reform sometimes can replace one bad system with another. Alex Lichtenstein’s 1993 article on southern chain gangs, “Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South,” Journal of Southern History 59 (February 1993): 85–110,shows how this brutal system of penal labor was initially touted as a progressive reform designed to abolish private convict leasing.

4)      The penal system in the US has always been defined by its disparate impact on racial minorities, African Americans in particular. An excellent overview of this historic pattern is provided by sociologist Loïc Wacquant in his article “Deadly Symbiosis.”

5)      The punitive attitude toward drug use has helped balloon incarceration. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann’s article, “‘The Attila the Hun Law’: New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Making of a Punitive State,” Journal of Social History 44 (September 2010): 71–96, explains the origins of this policy choice.

Featured image: Woman feeding chickens at the Indiana Women’s Prison

If you have more recommendations for reading on the history of prisons in the US, please leave a comment.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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