Book Review: The American Prison: From The Beginning: A Pictorial History

The American Prison:  From The Beginning:  A Pictorial History, published by the American Correctional Association

This is both a strange and a compelling pictorial history of American imprisonment, strange because it is rare for a profession to throw themselves under the bus the way that this book does and compelling because it demonstrates a great deal about the long span of American imprisonment, a subject of considerable personal interest.  The authors do a good job at showing the tensions and even contradictions inherent in American imprisonment, showing the nearly constant increase in imprisonment in both absolute numbers and by rate through American history (with very limited periods of decline on both measures) while also showing the way that high-minded ideals in terms of managing prisons often were trumped by logistical and financial concerns on the part of thrifty public agencies looking to spend less money than they otherwise would on prisons, and certainly less than it would take to have high staffing levels and a safe and comfortable time for prisoners.  There was even a surprising degree of humor in this book that I did not expect, as prisons are not the sort of matter that one expects to lead to levity and amusement on the part of a writer.

This book of slightly more than 250 pages is divided into eight large chapters and an epilogue that are mostly made up of pictures with thoughtful text as well.  The book begins, after a preface and introduction, with a discussion of the European influence on American prisons, especially that of the English influence (1).  After that we look at prisons and punishment in the colonial world, including a great deal of whippings as well as the panopticon plan (2).  Next we look at the competition between two rival American systems of imprisonment, the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems that mandated silence and a penitential attitude as well as having a silent public that did not disapprove of the harsh conditions and strong sense of discipline, and a brief look at imprisonment in the Civil War (3).  After this comes a look at the reformatory era and various professionalization efforts as well as progressive-minded but ineffectual principles of imprisonment that were thought to be more humane than punitive methods of imprisonment (4).  After this we look at imprisonment through World War I (including prison farms) (5), imprisonment through World War II, including co-correctional and juvenile facilities (6), and the decline in formality and the rise of riots and disturbances in the period between 1950 and 1970 (7), when liberal attitudes of relaxing vigilance were discredited.  Finally, the book concludes with a look at prison overcrowding in the 1970’s and 1980’s (8) as well as an epilogue that looks to the future and what sort of changes the authors want in the decades ahead.

As someone who has read a fairly large body of literature about prisons and imprisonments, it is striking to me that prison guards and their professional organizations are so self-hating.  It would appear as if corrections guards, many of whom are probably decent people from the rural parts of the United States, are poorly served by the psychologists and whiny activists who claim to represent them and who often have bad ideas about how to deal with the problem of criminality in the United States.  Similar to the problem of education in the United States and the failed war on poverty, efforts at dealing with criminality in the United States have been largely unsuccessful.  The criminal class has not gained moral fervor or changed their ways, efforts at education and job training have proven too expensive, and prison construction has been necessary just to try to keep up, much less overcome, the persistent problem of overcrowding.  Sadly, a great many people (including the authors of this and many other books) have simply too many agendas to deal with the data in a forthright and honest fashion, trying to explain away their failures by blaming (white) society.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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