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

Rebecca M. McLennan

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Book Description

March 4 2008 0521537835 978-0521537834 1
In the Age of Jackson, private enterprise set up shop in the American penal system. Working hand in glove with state government, contractors in both the North and the South would go on to put more than half a million imprisoned men, women, and youth to hard, sweated toil for private gain by 1900. Held captive, stripped of their rights, and subject to lash and paddle, convict laborers churned out vast quantities of goods and revenue, in some years generating the equivalent of more than $30 billion worth of work. By the 1880s, however, a growing mass of Americans came to regard the prison labor system as immoral and unbefitting of a free republic: it fostered torture and other abuses, degraded free citizen-workers, corrupted government and the legal system, and stifled the supposedly ethical purposes of punishment. The Crisis of Imprisonment tells the remarkable story of this controversial system of penal servitude:-how it came into being, how it worked, how the popular campaigns for its abolition were ultimately victorious, and how it shaped and continues to haunt the American penal system. The author takes the reader into the morally vital world of nineteenth-century artisans, industrial workers, farmers, clergy, convicts, machine politicians, and labor leaders and shows how prisons became a lightning rod in a determined defense of republican and Christian values against the encroachments of an unbridled market capitalism. She explores the vexing ethical questions that prisons posed then and remain exigent today: What are the limits of state power over the minds, bodies, and souls of citizens and others-is torture permissible under certain circumstances? What, if anything, makes the state morally fit to deprive a person of life or liberty? Are prisoners slaves and, if so, by what right? Should prisoners work? Is the prison a morally defensible institution? The eventual abolition of prison labor contracting plunged the prisons into deep fiscal and ideological crisis. The second half of the book offers a sweeping reinterpretation of Progressive Era prison reform as, above all, a response to this crisis. It concludes with an exploration of the long-range impact of both penal servitude and the anti-prison labor movement on the modern American penal system.

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"Deeply researched and deeply reflective, The Crisis of Imprisonment redefines the central themes of 19th and early 20th century American prison history. Its story of the rise and fall of contractual penal servitude shows how questions of imprisonment, prison labor, and the treatment of prisoners lay at the heart of ongoing struggles over the meaning of freedom and unfreedom in America. Few scholars have succeeded so well in tracing the reciprocal relations between the institutions of punishment and the broader fields of economic and political power with which they are connected. Written with clarity and conviction, this is a major new work on the formation of the American penal state." - David Garland, New York University

"Although there have been several fine studies of the thinking and influence of American prison reformers, McLennan has written a revealing study of the impact of popular politics, and especially of the prisoners themselves on the shaping and reshaping of state prison systems. She helps us understand the huge prison business of our times by analyzing controversies and prison revolts that led first to the development of contract prison labor then to its abolition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries." - David Montgomery, Yale University

"A timely, penetrating look into the horrors of the nineteenth-century prison system, its brutal-and brutalizing-convict labor system, and the mass of ordinary Americans who confronted its abuses and, ultimately, brought about its abolition." - Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents

"This is an extraordinary investigation and analysis of penal servitude and anti-prison labor campaigns in American history. Wonderfully insightful and illuminating, this work has much to teach us about where we've been and what we must consider in confronting the politics of legal punishment." - Bryan Stevenson, New York University School of Law, Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative

"One of the smartest books about punishment I have ever read. And this is not just a book about prisons. The story Rebecca McLennan narrates so powerfully in these pages-the controversial career of penal servitude in a liberal democratic republic--has much to tell us about the history of American society, politics, and institutions." - Michael Willrich, Brandeis University, author of City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago

"In a nation dedicated to liberty, the topic of the imprisoned deserves attention and the considerate analysis exhibited in this book. Essential." -Choice

Book Description

America's prison-based system of punishment has not always enjoyed the widespread political and moral legitimacy it has today. Unearthing fresh evidence from prison and state archives, McLennan shows how, in each of three distinct periods of crisis, widespread dissent culminated in the dismantling of old systems of imprisonment.

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