Prison Project

Welcome To The Asylum


This is an excerpt of an upcoming article that takes a look at insanity within American culture in the colonial era.

In 17th century America, insanity within the prison system was not discussed, it was completely and totally ignored as a matter of fact. The prison was for criminals, for the wrongdoers, even as there may have been realizations that some inmates just weren’t right. While there were changes and reforms from people such as Dorothea Dix, the plight of insane and mentally ill people within the early American prison system starts much before and after either people like her came onto the scene.

Rather than jump right into insane/mentally ill individuals in the US prison system, it must first be known the terminology by which insanity was defined overall and viewed amongst the different cultures of early America.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the term “distraction” was used to describe a person who was just short of being fully mentally ill while later in the 18th and into the 19th centuries, terms such as “demonic possession,” “madness,” and “lunacy”[1] came into the mainstream to define what today we acknowledge as mental illness. The exact definition of insanity can be found in an 1851 edition of Webster’s Dictionary which defined the term as a “state of being unsound in mind” and “applicable to any degree of mental derangement from slight delirium or wandering, to distraction.”[2] While these terms may seem to be quite scientific, in some cases they were more a dig at those who were mentally ill, one example being the term “madness” which “was an emotionally charged term tinged with contempt” as it suggested “wilderness” and a “lack of restraint by reason.”[3] In this manner, uses of certain terms to describe the mentally ill resulted in their being dehumanized and look at as more animalistic rather than human beings in need of medical treatment. This line of thought persisted in the 18th and 19th centuries as a loss of reason was equated with a loss of humanity and “madmen were seen as little better than animals.” In fact, “the first hospitals were established to protect citizens from the threat to social order posed by violent lunatics,”[4] rather than trying to rehabilitate them and such hospitals were viewed as a tool of social control.

Yet, the treatment of the mentally ill varied among different cultures, which had different views on insanity. Native Americans described mental illness as “soul loss” or “being lost to oneself,”[5] something which occurred due to violating a taboo such as incest or being attacked by a spirit. In other cultures, mental illness was viewed as being out of touch, out of balance with the physical and spiritual universes. Yet no matter the definition, there were healing rituals such as the week-long “night chant” of the Navajo in which a shaman would paint an image on the ground, with the patient sitting on a different part of the image each night as the treatment progressed. During this time, the shaman would ask the patient numerous questions and would press them to admit their wrongdoings.

African-American views of insanity and mental illness were similar to those of Native Americans as they overlapped the mental and spiritual in discerning the problem as well as in healing. There was a general belief that illness, but especially mental illness, was bought on by a curse but the afflicted was always seen as being somewhat responsible for bringing the curse onto themselves. African-Americans that believed themselves to be under a curse would “often exhibited symptoms of mental illness”[6] and in many cases would starve themselves or stop drinking and die of dehydration. The reason for this was that witchcraft was (and still is in some cases) quite prevalent in African societies and thus the psychological effects of believing that one was cursed could end up manifesting itself physically in acts such as the ones mentioned.

However, this view of insanity being caused by curses also served as an outlet for slaves to express their anger against their masters. Slaves would have curses put on masters for committing such acts as punishing them unjustly or selling a family member. In this context, witchcraft and insanity can be viewed as a “mental resistance to slavery.”

Unlike Native Americans or African-Americans, Europeans examined insanity and mental illness through the lens of religion, with insanity being caused by demonic possession. Cotton Mather, an influential Puritan minister who played a major role in the Salem Witch Trials, supported this position, writing that some people’s bodies had a “mass of blood” in them which was “disordered with some fiery acid” and that Satan possesses such people and waits until he has an “opportunity to shoot into the mind as many fiery darts as may cause a sad life unto them.”[7]

According to Mather, while demonic possession was linked to the ‘evils’ of ‘Satan,’ it was also believed that God himself could inflict madness on a person. He could do this for a number of reasons such as “punishment for a grievous sin,” “a way of demonstrating his divine power, a test of faith for the afflicted, or for mysterious reasons of his own.”[8]

Mental illness was dealt in two main ways, which can be separated into the public and private spheres. There was a general class divide as privately, those mentally ill in upper class families were cared for in their homes whereas the poor were subject to public treatment in which there was either indifference in regards to harmless individuals or mental illness was recognized “for the purpose of punishing or repressing the individual.”[9] The violent mentally ill were dealt with in a much different manner, using ‘remedies’ that are quite barbaric for today’s standards, where the sick were “locked up and chained by their families in strong-rooms, cellars, and even in flimsy out-houses,” yet, “where the illness manifested itself in a mild and harmless manner, the individual was permitted a degree of freedom of movement.”[10] The main goal of the public was to rid themselves of any and all violent cases, which usually consisted of locking them away in prisons.

As time progressed, the Anglo-American establishment began to change slightly in regards to treatment of the mentally ill. Instead of having the disturbed be subject to torturous acts based upon religion, they were subject to tortuous acts based upon ‘rational’ and ‘science,’ by the likes of such people as one Benjamin Rush.

Rush had quite the resume, graduating from Princeton before the age of fifteen and quickly rising to prominence over the years. At the age of 23, he was elected to be a professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia. Yet, for all of this, he lacked greatly in regards to find ways to treat the insane. He “divided mental diseases into two principal groups: general intellectual derangement, and partial intellectual derangement. His remedies for insanity were likewise placed in two general categories: remedies applied to the mind through the medium of the body, and remedies applied to the body through the medium of the mind.”[11] The application of bloodletting was most horrendous as there were three main methods, all of which were appalling.

The first was the continued use of leeches as a bloodletting source. The second was called arteriotomy, a process in which the arteries in the temples would be punctured and bled. The third was phlebotomy (also known as “breathing a vein”) where a large external vein would be cut in order to draw blood. The last was scarification – a particularly stomach-turning method which involved one of a varied set of tools made for the purpose of attacking “superficial” blood vessels. Such devices included spring-loaded lancets and a circular, mutli-bladed, spring-loaded device known as a scarificator.[12]

Rush used bloodletting in the extreme. He even admitted that “he once extracted two hundred ounces of blood from one patient within a few months, and from another 470 ounces in forty-seven bleedings.”[13] Such barbarous activity only harmed the mentally ill and this type of harmful activity would occur for quite some time. Yet, there was hope, namely due to one woman by the name of Dorothea Dix.



[1] Lynn Gomwell and Nancy Tomes, Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness before 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), pg 9

[2] Janet A. Tighe, “What’s in a Name: A Brief Foray into the History of Insanity in England and the United States,” Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 33:2 (June 2005), pg 253

[3] Gomwell and Tomes, pg 9

[4] Gomwell and Tomes, pg 19

[5] Rebecca Tannenbaum, Health and Wellness In Colonial America: Health and Wellness In Daily Life (Santa Barbra, California: Greenwood, 2012), pg 142

[6] Tannenbaum, pg 144

[7] Cotton Mather, Thomas Robbins, Samuel Gardner Drake, Magnalia Christi Americana: The Ecclesiastical History of New England, vol. 1 (Hartford, Connecticu: Silus Andrus & Son, 1855), pg 438

[8] Tannenbaum, pg 145

[9] Albert Deutsch, “Public Provision for the Mentally Ill in Colonial America,” Social Service Review 10:4 (1936), pg 608

[10] Deutsch, pg 607

[11] Albert Deutsch, The Mentally Ill in America: A History of Their Care and Treatment from Colonial Times, (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 1946), pg 77

[12] Medtech, Bloodletting is back! Here’s Everything You Need to Know About This Ancient Practice,

[13] Deutsch, pg 77


Back On Track!

I have had to take a hiatus from The Prison Project for the past 8 months or so due to the general business of life. I am going to school full-time and working 8 and 9 hour shifts on the weekends, regularly leaving me with very little time to actually do anything as I either have to do scho0l work or am just generally too tired from work. I also write a large amount about foreign policy and that has taken up a lot of my time, yet I have decided to take a break from all of that in order to just focus on this project.

In a way, the time I was forced to take off was a blessing as it allowed me to rethink this project and just where I wanted to go with it. Originally, I was just going to write a general history of the prison system, but I have realized that I wanted to take it deeper, much deeper than what I am currently doing. Rather than just skimming the surface, I have come to realized that I could and need to take this project as far as I possibly can, from discussing insanity in the prison system to talking about the problems LGBT, especially trans* individuals, have to deal with.

An undertaking like this has left me quite worried about whether I am up the to the task, whether or not I have bitten off much more than I can chew and if I am even intellectually competent enough to do something like this. I honestly hope that I am up to the task, but even if I fail, I would have regretted not trying at all.

This is going to take quite a while and I hope that you’ll support me.

Prison Project Update #4

The research has been going quite well over the past couple of weeks. While I still plan to be in the 1950s by mid-August, I have realized that a couple of things.

  • Due to the time length of the prison reform movement in the 19th century (about 1860 to 1920), it would be best if I were to split this time period up into three parts, rather than writing one long essay on it. Doing this would allow me to explore the occurrences and people involved in the reform movement more in-depth as well as the ideas and groups that were sprouting up at the time.
  • In doing some research into the 1960s, specifically with the War on Drugs and how it affected the prison system in the US, I realized that the drug war was in reality started long before, in the 1920s, and thus I plan on doing a series on the War on Drugs to discuss how that affected the prison system as well as the United States on a political, economic, and social level.

Thus, I have a lot of research to do and not much time to do it if I want to keep up with my scheduled time frame. Hopefully it will all go well. The first part of the prison reform movement should be posted soon.

Prison Project Update #3

Currently, I am working on a concise history of the evolution of the prison system from the 1830s to the 1900s. This will take quite some time as the ideas and historical figures that  I am researching have rather scarce information on them, however, I will be periodically publishing articles on the topic as well as doing more updates on the Prison Project website. I know that I have not been giving as many updates as I should have, yet that will change this upcoming month. I will no longer let work or procrastination get in the way of my research, thus the project will be moving a long at a much faster pace. I am setting a goal to, by the end of July, be at researching prisons in at least the 1950s if not the ’60s or ’70s.
On a personal note, this project has forced me to evolve my research skills for the better which will only benefit in the future as the project gets closer and closer to present times, which will force me more and more to use online sources rather than books.
The goal has been set, now all that’s left is to get to work.
Wish me luck!


– Devon DB

Slavery By A Different Name

Slavery By A Different Name: The Convict Lease System


After the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional amendments were passed which aided newly freed slaves in being equally treated under the law, or so the story goes. The fact of the matter is that slavery was- and still is- completely legal in the United States and not only that, but it took on a much different form. The institution of slavery changed as instead of having the direct enslavement of blacks with an entire apparatus that had to be created to keep slaves in their condition, elements of the state apparatus were used to enslave blacks, namely the legal and prison systems. Yet, the enslavement itself was changed as black convicts were no longer slaves to individual masters, but rather they were enslaved to the companies which they were leased out to. To create this system there not only had to be the involvement of the Southern judicial system and individual Northern and Southern elites, but also the involvement of the corporation and reinstitution of slavery within a corporate context.


The 13th Amendment

To attain a full understanding of the convict lease system, there must first be a reexamination of the 13th amendment. It has been stated in history books and in classrooms across America that this amendment ended slavery, yet this is quite false. The 13th Amendment states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [1] (emphasis added) Thus, slavery is completely and totally legal if it is part (or the whole) of a punishment for someone who was convicted of a crime.

When debating the 13th amendment, many in Congress were not thinking of slaves, but rather white labor, with Senator Henry Wilson saying “The same influences that go to keep down and crush down the rights of the poor black man bear down and oppress the poor white laboring man.” [2] Senator Richard Yates of Illinois was much blunter, stating that he had “never had the negro on the brain” [3] when discussing the amendment. Such notions are in the absurd! Wilson is correct to an extent when he argues that both slave and white labor are oppressed by the same system; both are oppressed in that they are being manipulated and played off one another by the elite of both the North and South. Still, Wilson ignores the fact that white labor was very much less oppressed than black slave labor as white laborers were seen as human being, deserving of dignity and respect, rather than treated worse than animals. White laborers were free to do as they pleased, not having to worry about ensuring that they consistently had papers on their person as to prove their freedom.

The passing of the 13th amendment should be examined within the context of an economic competition between black slave labor and free white labor. The South’s economy was built around slave labor and the ability to have the slaves produce more than they were ‘worth,’ seeing as how slaves were viewed as not just general property but a long-term economic investment which helped the Southern plantation elite. Yet, due to the existence of slavery, white labor suffered as not only did they lose out on the income they were making when slavery was first introduced as well as the potential future income, but also white labor was unable to make advances within the South as slave provided a source of labor that was less expensive in the long-term.

Senator Henry Williams illustrates these points and other problems that white labor had with slavery. He stated that

slavery was evil because it destroyed much of the richest land in the South; it degraded labor and the meaning of labor for poor white working men in the South; it robbed the South of culture by degrading the efforts of laborers; and it allowed southern aristocrats to further insult northern white workers by demeaning their laboring efforts as crabbed and mean. It was the association between labor and slavery in the minds of southern aristocrats that demeaned the efforts of industrious northern laborers. Thus, slavery pulled white workers down in two ways: one, by direct competition with slave labor in the South, and two, by associating all the industrious efforts of workers with those of the degraded slaves. [4] (emphasis added)

Thus, the only way for white labor to triumph in their struggle for rights such as a fair wage and regular working hours was for the abolition of slavery. White labor had a direct interest in the nullification of slavery.

Yet, there was a difference of opinion in the minds of Southern elites who wanted to continue slavery, but on different terms.


Southern Elites

Before discussing the Southern elites, one must first examine it within the context of the Southern economy after the Civil War. It was utterly in shambles, one could make quite the argument that it had been decimated and demolished in virtually every conceivable way. The entire economy of the South was built upon the institution of slavery and agriculture. With the end of the Civil War, not only was the Southern economy damaged by the freeing of black slaves, but also the land was deeply scarred and hurt, thus creating an immediate economic problem. However, among all of this there was an opportunity reorient and reconstruct the economy around a new labor source as cheap labor would be needed to rebuild the region.

The social order must be examined as well. While the slaves were now free and able to do as they pleased, there was still a deeply embedded racism within the minds of Southern whites. Just because blacks had fought in the Civil War did not suddenly mean that the perception of blacks had changed; rather to the Southern elites, they still viewed blacks as inferior and only good for labor, longing to perpetuate the slave system but within a new industrial framework seeing as how the agricultural framework had been destroyed. This new system was to be found in the convict leasing.

The leasing out of state convicts to private hands has its basis in the minds of such people as John T. Milner of Alabama. Milner was no ordinary man, rather he was a Southern elite who “was in the vanguard of that new theory of industrial forced labor,” writing in 1859 that “black labor marshaled into the regimented productivity of factory settings would be the key to the economic development of Alabama and the South.” [5] Milner’s idea of using regimented black labor can be seen in his involvement of a project for the Blue River, a railroad company, in Alabama. In 1859 he issued a plan for the laying of rail in Montgomery, “presenting statistical evidence to demonstrate the potential economic benefit to Montgomery of securing connections with Decatur,” a city north of Montgomery. He argued that the Blue River could build its own track in nearby Jones Valley with the use of slave labor. Yet, in Milner’s mind, this slave labor had to be managed by whites. He stated “A negro who can set a saw, or run a grist mill, or work in a blacksmith shop, can do work as cheaply in a rolling mill, even now, as white men do at the North, provided he has an overseer, a southern man, who knows how to manage negroes.” [6] (emphasis added) After the end of the Civil War, Milner’s plan changed, but he was convinced that “the future of blacks in America rested on how whites chose to manage them.” [7] To this end, in the 1870s, he moved with purpose to acquire the black convict labor that Alabama’s prisons were offering up. He took these convicts and put them to work in coal mines, treating them barbarically.

Records of Milner’s various mines and slave farms in southern Alabama owned by one of his business partners- a cousin to an investor in the Bibb Steam Mill- tell the stories of black women stripped naked and whipped, of hundreds of men starved, changed, and beaten, of workers perpetually lice-ridden and barely clothed. [8] (emphasis added)

Black Americans, many of them former slaves, were essentially re-enslaved but within the context of a corporate structure with an alliance between the state and the corporation. Yet, the judicial system was greatly involved in allowing this to occur, from the laws passed to sheriffs selling of convicts to companies.


The Judicial System

In order to allow for the convict lease system to exist and for blacks to be reduced to their former state as a labor source, it required that the law limit the rights of blacks and criminalize black life to the point that blacks could be imprisoned on the most frivolous of offenses. Such laws took the form of Black Codes.

To understand the creation of Black Codes, it is necessary to understand the social order that motivated elites to push for such legislation. North Carolina is a prime example. After the war, the elite would have preferred the system to revert back to the status quo that existed under the slave system, yet this was not possible due to the liberation of blacks and free whites caused by the destruction of the slave system. This problem was greatly exacerbated by the fact that “in suppressing the war to dissolve the Union the whites were deprived of arms while many Negroes had easily obtained them,” thus “A general feeling of insecurity on the part of the whites” resulted. [9] Armed blacks were a threat to elite interests as by being able to defend and protect themselves; blacks would be able to ensure that they would not be re-enslaved. Furthermore, it presented a problem to the overall white power structure as having weapons would empower blacks to stand up for themselves and assert their rights not only as Americans but also as human beings and such a situation bought the memories and worries of a slave revolt back to the forefront of the minds of elites.

To put blacks back ‘in their place,’ the elite pushed several laws that were passed in the state legislature such as defining “a Negro as any person of African descent, although one ancestor to the fourth generation might be white.” [10] The fact that racial identity was dependent on the mother rather than the father made the situation all the worse as blacks who had white fathers, whether by marriage or by rape, were now considered to be black and thus would be subject to the worst aspects of living within a white supremacist society.

Another example of the law being used to punish blacks was those laws concerning vagrancy. In North Carolina there was a problem concerning labor as after the Civil War, blacks and whites were working on their own fields, yet

Many others less energetic, white and black, were flooding the towns and refusing work of any sort, for in the days of bondage, master and slave had been taught that to labor with the hands was undignified: consequently, freedom to many Negroes meant a deliverance from hard labor. [11]

These workers proved a problem to North Carolinian industrialists and agriculturalists as few could afford to pay workers a wage until the crop had been grown, not to mention that neither employee nor employer were familiar with a wage system. A solution was found in creating vagrancy laws. Of the workers who refused to do any labor, vagrancy laws were passed that stated that a person who had no means of survival or refused to work would be regarded a vagrant and sent to court, however, a payment could be offered which would be conditional upon the good behavior of the vagrant for one year and thus would allow the person to get off scot free. Yet if the person was unable to make such a payment, they would be convicted a vagrant and fined, imprisoned, or both. When concerning now freed slaves, the laws was much harsher as many of them, once convicted, were apprenticed to their former owners under a contract or being leased to a corporation. In the contract, the owner was to feed, clothe, and instruct the freed slave in reading, writing, and arithmetic and, upon the end of the apprenticeship, they were to be given money, a new set of clothes, and a new Bible as payment for the work done. However, such repayment rarely occurred or was enforced by the state government.

Overall in the South, vagrancy laws were so vaguely defined that any free black that was not under the protection of a white person could be arrested. Such laws allowed for police to “round up idle blacks in times of labor scarcity and also gave employers a coercive tool that might be used to keep workers on the job.” [12]

With the judicial system having established a means to ensure a continuous supply of cheap labor, the leasing could now begin.


Convict Leasing

The act of leasing out convicts isn’t anything new as in states such as Alabama, where the government had no interest in caring for convicts; prisoners were leased out to companies. While this may have helped prisons get convicts off their hands, they made no extra revenue from it. After the Civil War, such leasing began to pick up steam as corporations had access to almost free labor.

Labor scarcity between states was a major problem and thus concerted efforts were made by each state to keep black prison labor within their borders. This was done be waging war on emigrant agents, people who specialized in moving labor from where it was abundant to where it was scarce. They had done this when slavery was still existent and it continued under the newly freed slaves. Such agents were viewed as a threat to white farmers as by moving black labor here and there, it threatened the establishment of a stable labor source. Though in the early months emigrant agents were ignored, many states established anti-emigrant agent laws due to their need to keep in black labor. One example is in 1876 when Georgia, “Hard hit by black movement to the West,” passed legislation that “levied an annual tax of $100 for each county in which a recruiter sought labor. A year later she raised the amount to $500.” [13]

Convict leasing, interestingly enough, resulted in power being taken from the state level and given to those on the local level to the point that sheriffs became quite powerful soon after the Civil War ended as “County sheriffs and judges had dabbled with leasing black convicts out to local famers, or to contractors under hire to repair roads and bridges, beginning almost immediately after the Civil War.” [14] This economic empowerment of sheriffs created an incentive for them to convict and lock up as many freedmen as possible and keep a steady supply of labor. An entire economy eventually formed around the convict lease system, including a speculative trade system in convict contracts developed.

The witnesses and public officials who were owed portions of the lease payments earned by convicts received paper receipts- usually called scrips- from the county that could be redeemed only after the convict had generated enough money to pay them off. Rather than wait for the full amount, holders of scrips would sell their notes for cash to speculators at a lower than face amount. In return, the buyers were to receive the full lease payments- profiting handsomely from on those convicts who survived, losing money on the short-lived. [15]

While there was much profit to be made in the convict lease system, not everyone was happy with it, namely, white labor.


Labor’s Reaction to Convict Leasing

Just as how white labor was against slavery due to it undermining their struggle for better working conditions, they were also against the convict lease system for the very same reasons. Never did they stop to consider the fact that both worker and freedman were being manipulated by the very same systems that governed them.

Labor’s anti-convict leasing sentiments were felt long before the Civil War began. In 1823 in New York City, journey men cabinet makers conducted a mass meeting to discuss prison-made good being introduced to the market and how it threatened their trade. In that same year, also in New York City, mechanics petitioned the state legislature to end the use of prison labor. [16]

During the Civil War, labor unions were opposed to the use of convict labor, arguing that it “tended to lower the wages of thousands of laborers, and in some instances has virtually driven certain kinds of labor out of the field” and that” the contractor is seeking cheap labor and cares nothing for the welfare of the prisoner.” [17] However it should be noted that unions were not opposed to all convict labor, as they stated that they were fine with prisoners building a state prison. Thus, the labor unions didn’t truly care about the brutal, inhumane treatment of convicts, but whether or not the convicts were encroaching on their area of employment.

Yet this should not be examined as a separate battle between free labor and convict labor, but rather a continuation of the struggle between the two groups. Once again, the only way white labor’s goals could be achieved was with the destruction of most of the convict lease system to protect their own industries.

While the convict leasing may have been profitable for a select few and a thorn in the side to many, eventually the system would have to end.


The End of Convict Leasing

Due to a mixture of the changes in economic and social landscape, convict leasing would eventually die out. However, it is important to first note that the economic and social justifications for such a system reinforced each other as not only was it “an expedient by which Southern states with depleted treasuries could avoid costly expenditures; it was also one of the greatest single sources of personal wealth to some of the South’s leading businessmen and politicians.” [18] The Southern elites benefitted greatly from the system and thus put all their efforts into perpetuating the system for as long as possible.

If one only looks on the surface at the abolition of convict leasing, they may assume that its demise was due to the public indignation that arose against the system yet this is not the case- far from it, rather it involved a combination of race, politics, and economics depending on the state. For example, in Louisiana, convict leasing was abolished due to it being “part of a reform package which had as its purpose the complete triumph of white supremacy in political affairs” whereas in Tennessee, its leaders

decided that the demands of fiscal responsibility dictated abolition when the expense of maintaining the militia at convict stockades-a cost incurred by an armed rebellion on the part of free miners who were displaced by convict gangs-proved greater than the income from the leasing contract. [19]

In this system was embedded racism, politics, and economics, but it was also just as much embedded in violence and brutality. Men and women were beaten, bloodied, bruised, and valued only so long as they were able to do labor. They were reduced to nothing more than human resources, human tools to do the bidding of and enrich white industrialists and agriculturalists from the North and the South. From the Civil War to World War Two, black Americans were re-enslaved under a new system that was no better than the first.



1: Legal Information Institute, 13th Amendment of the US Constitution,

2: Lea S. VanderVelde, “The Labor Vision of the Thirteenth Amendment,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 138:2 (1989), pg 440

3: VanderVelde, pg 446

4: VanderVelde, pg 466

5: Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War 2 (New York, New York: Anchor Books, 2008) pg 51

6: W. David Lewis, “The Emergence of Birmingham as a Case Study of Continuity between the Antebellum Planter Class and Industrialization in the ‘New South’,” Agricultural History 68:2 (1994), pg 67

7: Blackmon, pg 51

8: Blackmon, pg 52

9: James B. Browning, “The North Carolina Black Code,” The Journal of Negro History 15:4 (1930) pg 462

10: Browning, pg 464

11: Browning, pg 466

12: William Cohen, “Negro Involuntary Servitude in the South, 1865-1940: A Preliminary Analysis,” The Journal of Southern History 42:1 (1976) pg 34

13: Cohen, pg 39

14: Blackmon, pg 64

15: Blackmon, pg 65

16: Henry Theodore Jackson, “Prison Labor,” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 18:2 (1927) pgs 244, 245

17: Theodore Jackson, pg 246

18: Matthew J. Mancini, “Race, Economics, and The Abandonment of Convict Leasing,” The Journal of Negro History 63:4 (1978) pg 339

19: Mancini, pg 340

Prison Project Update #2

The articles I’ve written so far (and will continue to write) have taken so long due to the amount of time it takes for me to properly research the information. While I have found that using Google Books has greatly helped, I realize that I may also need to access journals that can only be found on sites such as JSTOR as they contain valuable information that has been well-researched and can possibly lead me to other sources.

In researching the most recent article, I have found that I also will need to do some research and writing on the American public and their perceptions of prisons and how they have changed over time.  This will be quite important as the political elites, while they usually do what they please, will, with enough pressure from the public, make slight reforms to the system as to stem any discontent. It will be interesting to see who and what shapes the perception of prisons for the public and how their changing views affect the prison system.

However, that will be done a later date. For now, I will begin researching women’s prisons, specifically how they came about, the differences between male and female prisons, and the issue of how race played in a role in female prisons and how race affected female prisoners. This will lay the basis for later research when I get into the more modern era and discuss how it is increasingly women of color who are being incarcerated.

The Evolution of the Prison

The Evolution of the Prison: From Rehabilitation to Punishment

While there was an intellectual basis for using prisons as a way to ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, there were soon major changes in prisons. Due to a series of changes, the prison became a place, not for a criminal to be rehabilitated, but rather, for them to be punished.

Prisons began to change after the Revolutionary War. In Philadelphia, due to prisoners being engaged in hard labor and this causing fear among the populace, people began to form groups such as The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons, which argued for prison reform. This push for prison reform culminated in the creation of the Walnut Street prison.

Two major figures involved in Walnut Street were Caleb Lownes and Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush would eventually become involved in the Walnut Street Prison, but he came into the world of prisons when he went to Europe in 1768 where hemingled among scientists, philosophers and literati, listening to progressive European theories about such issues as crime and punishment that would eventually follow him to America.” [1] In Europe he was exposed to the notion that crime was a ‘moral disease.’ This thought would stay with him when he came back to the States and began to argue that crime could be solved by creating a ‘house of repentance’ which would allow for the rehabilitation of criminals.

Once back in the United States, Rush wrote a book entitled An Enquiry Into The Effects Of Public Punishment Upon Criminals, And Upon Society. In it he argued that criminals could not be reformed by public punishments, such as floggings, due to the fact that such punishments “[are] always connected with infamy [and thus destroy] in him the sense of shame, which is one of the strongest out-posts of virtue” and “[are] generally of such short duration, as to produce none of those changes in body or mind, which are absolutely necessary to reform obstinate habits of vice.” Rush’s final argument was that public punishments actually increase crime as “the man who has lost his character at a whipping-post has nothing valuable left to lose” and due to his punishment, the criminal

probably feels a spirit of revenge against t he w hole community whose laws have inflicted his punishment upon him; and hence he is stimulated to add to the number and enormity of his outrages upon society. [2]

From this manner of thinking he then argued that the only way this situation could be remedied was to fix punishment. He argued that the punishments “if they were moderate, just, and private” and the fact of the certainty of being punished “would lead [the criminal] to connect the beginning of his repentance with the last words of his sentence of condemnation [the length of the punishment].” [3] In his mind, this goal could be achieved by building “a large house” to hold those who violated the law.

He eventually found a kindred spirit in Ben Franklin and together, along with several others, they established The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons in 1787 with the goal being tosubstitute public labor for imprisonment, a less costly arrangement than imprisonment while avoiding a return to floggings and dismemberment.” [4]

Caleb Lownes was a Quaker and began life as an iron merchant and gained immense status in his role of combating an onslaught of yellow fever in 1793. He became involved in prisons when he joined the Philadelphia Society, where he soon became a leading member. The two would eventually become the heads of the Walnut Street prison.

Walnut, being the first prison in America, was quite interesting in its layout as prisoners were held in certain places depending on their crime. In addition to this the layout of the prison, it also served the purpose of attempting to reform prisoners via solitary confinement and hard labor.

Under Lownes, Walnut changed and a wide variety of handicrafts such as shoe making, weaving, and tailoring were introduced to the prison. During his time at Walnut, Lownes wrote a book that stimulated legislatures in other states to reform their criminal codes as “News of the success of the penitentiary house, where convicts were confined to separate cells at night and released to work in the courtyard or shops during the day, attracted a stream of visitors.” [5]

Another influential figure among the early prison system was Thomas Eddy. Eddy was a merchant and an admirer of the Philadelphia prison reform society and wanted to see those same reforms made in New York. In 1796, he worked with General Philip Schulyer and Ambrose Spencer, two influential politicians in the New York State Senate, to get a bill establishing a state prison passed in the legislature. This bill allowed for several crimes that used to get one the death penalty, to be punished with life imprisonment and made radical changes to the punishment for criminal activity and created different lengths of punishment based on the frequency of the crime. In the book Observations on Penal Jurisprudence and The Reformation of Criminals it reads:

By this law, which has since received several amendments, all those crimes (excepting treason and murder which continue capital) that were before punished with death were punishable by imprisonment for life; all offences above the degree of petty larceny, are punishable for the first offence by imprisonment, for a term not exceeding fourteen years, and for a second offence for life. […] Forfeiture of goods and lands, except for treason, deodands, and corporal punishments, were wholly abolished. [6] (emphasis added)

The changes are so radical due to the fact that they depart from the traditional thinking of its time where one could be punished either by death, public punishment, or confiscation of goods and land. Instead, it allows for the establishment of a prison and due to these changes in law solidifies the prison as the major means of punishment.

After the bill was signed into law, Eddy became the commissioner of the prison (known as Newgate) and advocated a single cell system in which each convict would be in their own personal cell during the night, but overall followed the Walnut prison model which advocated congregate rooms and workshops.

Eddy advocated this single cell system as “He found, from careful observation, that several [prisoners] confined in a cell corrupted each other, for each one told to his companions his career of vice, and all joined in the sympathetic villainy of to keep each other countenance.” [7] It was not immediately accepted in New York, but it was implemented in England after Eddy wrote to Patrick Colquhoun as well as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The single cell system was implemented on a small scale in Newgate due to other commissioners being fearful of such a new and untested plan.

However, Eddy’s thinking on prisons would soon change. In 1802, a bloody riot and mass escape attempt took place that was only foiled due to calling in military forces. This caused a shift in Eddy’s view on the structure of prisons. He began to think “that the design of Newgate was a mistake that only an entirely new building could rectify” and that the problem could be solved “with singles cells for the separate confinement of all inmates at night and with shops for their labor in strict silence on weekdays.” [8] Eddy would eventually resign from his position at Newgate, yet he didn’t give up on prison reform and continued to push his single cell plan. Eventually, it would take root.

In the early 19th century, specifically after the War of 1812, four distinct prison patterns emerged: 1) The solitary system pushed by the Philadelphia Society, 2) A balance between congregate labor and separate confinement with strong discipline, 3) The establishment of separate houses of refuge to take children out of prisons, and 4) The resurrection and reestablishment of prisons to deal with the problem of excess prison populations. These patterns were quite important as they would provide models for prisons to base themselves on for the next 50 years.

In New York, overall population increase prompted a change in the prison system. The establishment of the Auburn Penitentiary was an attempt to handle the population increase. However, even though it had a total of 61 single cells and 28 congregate rooms, this proved inadequate.

Thomas Eddy began to rally support to implement his new single cell plan by forming the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in New York. In 1822, the group released a book entitled Report on the Penitentiary System in the United States. In it, the group recommended many suggestions that would aid Eddy’s cause, among them that “the internal construction of our penitentiaries be altered,” “when solitary confinement is not adopted, the classification of prisoners be rigidly embraced,” and “that every convict sleep in a solitary cell.” [9] The group argued in favor of solitary confinement, saying that “Where solitary confinement has been tried, it has produced the most powerful of consequences” and, using examples from prisons in New York and Pennsylvania, stated that even the hardest of criminals “[had], in a few weeks, been reduced, by solitary confinement and low diet, to a state of the deepest penitence.” [10] Thus, there was in fact evidence that solitary confinement did make it easier for a prisoner to become ‘repentant.’ The state legislature was influenced this evidence and the fact that there was mounting disorder in congregate cells and authorized the implementation of a separate cell system in April 1819.

This creation of a separate cell system changed the structure of prisons and was first implemented in the Auburn prison. William Brittin, the first warden of Auburn, supervised the construction of the north wing which had separate cells. He may have been influenced by the plan of the Ghent House of Correction in 1773 as “on paper [the layout of the prison] appears to show a block of inside cells built back-to-back in one spoke of its octagonal structure.” [11] “[T]hey were interior cells opening into arcades on each level, but the concept of several tiers of cells opening onto galleries or catwalks could have been borrowed from the 1704 plan for the prison of St. Michael in Rome.” [12]

Brittin combined both concepts “into a double back of back-to-back cells, each 7 by 3.5 by 7 feet in size, and opening onto narrow wooden catwalks, with the entire five-story cage encompassed by outer walls some six feet distant on all sides from the inside prison grill.” [13] Yet this designed was changed after a fire occurred when some inmates wrecked the newly built north wing. In order to increase security, Brittin had each cell arched “with brick and topped the block with a cement ceiling 20 inches thick to prevent any access of fire or convicts to the roof.” [14]

After Brittin’s death in 1821, Gershom Powers became the agent of Auburn and Elam Lynds, the warden. Lynds “was a stern disciplinarian, well-known for his love of freely administered floggings and the summary use of wooden clubs” [15] and Powers was a very religious man and believed that the prisons needed chaplains to better the morality of prisoners, stating that a resident chaplain which had “a thorough knowledge of mankind; prudent, firm, discrete, and affectionate; activated by motives of public policy and Christian benevolence” would “secure the respect and confidence of a majority of the convicts” [16] who would consider him as their friend. Under these two, Auburn would evolve as they installed iron grates on cells. This increased the security and affordability of the prison, which attracted attention from the penal authorities of other states.

In addition to this, John Cray, a former Canadian soldier and deputy keeper at Auburn, “devised a strict discipline which included such regulations as downcast eyes, lockstep marching, no talking or other communication between prisoners, and constant activity under close supervision of the guards when [prisoners were] out of the cells.” This discipline, while it kept prisoners occupied for a majority of the day and “contributed to the maintenance of the prison,” also allowed for “an orderly atmosphere that attracted the praise of visitors from other states.” [17] Due to this “orderly atmosphere,” the same manner of discipline was adopted among other prisons throughout New York.

The prison system changed further with the classification of prisoners. Due to serious outbreaks in the overcrowded Walnut Street Prison, the New York Legislature, in April 1821, ordered the classification of prisoners into three classes: 1) the most hardened criminals who were to be held in solitary confinement in separate cells, 2) the less hardened criminals who were to be held in solitary confinement until they repented, yet they were allowed to work at certain tasks in the day time, and 3) the least hardened criminals who were confined in separate cells at night, but worked in prison shops in silence during the day time.

All of these changes and transformations in the use of prisons revealed “a new determination to use imprisonment as a form of punishment.” [18]



1: “Eastern State Penitentiary: A Prison With A Past,”, October 1, 2008 (
2: Benjamin Rush “An Enquiry Into The Effects Of Public Punishment Upon Criminals, And Upon Society,” in Basil Montagu, ed., The Opinions of Different Authors Upon The Punishment of Death, vol. 1 (London: Black Horse Court, 1809), pgs 281-282
3: Rush, pg 287
4: Philadelphia Reflections, Pennsylvania Prison Society,
5: Blake McKelvey, American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions (Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith Press, 1977) pg 8
6: William Roscoe Observations on Penal Jurisprudence and The Reformation of Criminals (London: Black Horse Court, 1819) pg 91
7: Freeman Hunt, Lives of American Merchants, vol. 1 (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1858) pg 337
8: McKelvey, pg 9
9: Charles Glidden Haines, Report on the Penitentiary System in the United States (New York: M. Day, 1822) pg 49
10: Glidden Haines, pgs 50-51
11: McKelvey, pg 12
12: Ibid
13: Ibid
14: McKelvey, pg 13
15: Martin B. Miller, “Sinking Gradually Into The Proletariat: The Emergence of the Penitentiary in the United States,” Crime and Social Justice, No. 14, focus on racism (Winter 1980): 38
16: John N. Miskell, Offering Hope, the Connection between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison, Corrections History,
17: McKelvey, pg 14
18: McKelvey, pg 13

Project Update #1

The Prison Project is going slowly but quite well. The process is going to speed up quite quickly as I plan to make schedule at least 2-5 hours a week to do research for the project.  I am well into researching the formation and changes of prisons in early 19th century America. It is quite interesting to examine and investigate the changes of prisons, especially their layouts and the people behind such changes. It has taken me some time to get to this point due to other obligations (eg work and school), but the payoff is going to be tremendous. In addition to using Blake McKelvey’s book American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions, Google Books has been a major help in accessing many of the primary documents mentioned by McKelvey. Several of these books are two- and three hundred pages, thus it takes a while to sift through them, but I have found very useful and relevant information that is going to show up in another article that I plan to write within the next couple of days.

I would like to thank Andrew Gavin Marshall for aiding in my research. He wrote a recent article about black history and there is some information connecting race and prisons in the late 19th and 20th centuries that I plan to use in the future once I get to that point.

Finally, I’d like to thank everyone for supporting The Prison Project. It is going to be a lot of hard work, but I believe that with your support I can do it.




Devon DB

The Establishment of the Prison

The Establishment of the Prison: Humane Alternative or A Tool of Social Control?

In researching and examining the reasons for the existence of prisons, one may find an array of answers. There are many of those who would state that the creation of prisons is the common sense argument that it was a response to criminal activity and whose purpose was to rehabilitate those deemed “criminals” by society. Yet, the creation of prisons was actually a product of the Enlightenment Period, as can be seen in Cesare Beccaria’s book On Crimes and Punishment, where he applies Enlightenment concepts to punishment and imprisonment. However, prisons can also be viewed in a much different light, as Michel Foucault does in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, where he extols the idea that prisons were created as a tool of social control. The arguments of both Beccaria and Foucalt should be examined and applied into how they fit into the creation of prisons in early 19th century America.

The logical reasons for imprisonment were first conceived by Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher of the Enlightenment age. In his book On Crime and Punishment he stated that people, wanting to live in relative peace and security, willingly gave up some of their liberty to establish laws which were enforced by an administrator or judge. However, having a judge is not enough due to the fact that it is “necessary to defend [liberty] from the usurpation of each individual, who will always endeavour to take away from the mass, not only his own portion, but to encroach on that of others.” [1] Thus, in order to ensure that people do not attempt to limit the freedom of others, punishments must be established for those who break the law. Imprisonment came into play as Beccaria thought that prison was the most rational of punishments as it was based in solid evidence due to the law determining “the crime, the presumption, and the evidence sufficient to subject the accused to imprisonment and examination.” [2] This manner of thinking not only established a logical basis for prisons, but it also represented a humane alternative to other punishments such as death and flogging. This would have a major impact on Quakers in 19th century Pennsylvania.

In colonial America, there existed buildings which were there mainly to lock up vagrants and those whose crimes didn’t warrant capital punishment. While these were called prisons, they were little more than holding cells and were not used to reform prisoners. That changed, however, with the state of Pennsylvania. After the of the Revolutionary War, in 1786, the penal system was revised and allowed for the death penalty in all but two major crimes. (This was in the spirit of Beccaria as he argued that swift punishments aided in the deterrence of crime.) In this revisement, a provision was included which allowed for public hard labor by prisoners. While this may have seemed like a good idea, it backfired as it only led to more crimes being committed and an overall increase in the number of prisoners. This caused widespread fear and panic, resulting in Quakers coming together to form prison reform groups such as The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Misery of Public Prisons. In addition to this, many Quakers also wanted a more humane system of punishment. Groups such as these pressured the Pennsylvanian government to create a state-run prison because due to “the severity of the laws, with the disgraceful mode of carrying them into effect” [3] such a prison was warranted. These demands resulted in the creation of the Walnut Street prison, which made Pennsylvania the first state to use prison to rehabilitate criminals.

Yet, one must ask the question: What is rehabilitation? Does it simply mean that the criminal no longer breaks laws or can it mean that in prison, he is socialized to become more compliant with the status quo? While the latter idea may seem far-fetched, it is exactly what Michel Foucault argues in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

As was previously stated, the want for a more humane system of punishment is why many Pennsylvanians argued for a prison system. The creation of the prison system was the most humane of punishments, not only due to its lack of barbarity when compared to other means of punishment, but also was the fairest means of punishment as prisons “[make] it possible to quantify the penalty exactly according to the variable of time” thus creating “wages-form of imprisonment that constitutes, in industrial societies, its economic ‘self-evidence’- and enables it to appear as a repartition.” [4]

The creation of the Walnut Street prison was also due to fear and panic on the part of Quakers. This fear, spurred by the increase in crime due to prisoners being out in public, would logically lead to the creation of prisons as “How could the prison not be immediately accepted when, by locking up, retraining and rendering docile, it merely reproduces, with a little more emphasis, all the mechanisms that are to be found in the social body?” [5] Essentially, what prisons do, are to take those who are deemed “criminals” by society (who are in reality social deviants) and funnel them into a system that reinforces societal norms on larger scale, with the hopes that the “criminals” will come out of prison being more compliant to status quo.

Examples of using punishment to force the behavior of criminals can be seen in 18th century Pennsylvania, in the form of the use of solitary confinement to force individuals to conform themselves to what was deemed “acceptable behavior.” Caleb Lownes, an active manager of the Walnut Street prison’s work program, tells such a story of one man who was put in solitary confinement for refusing to work and after several weeks of having little to no social interaction and unbearable living conditions, caved into the pressure and decided to work in the prison. It was noted that “The utmost propriety of conduct has been observed by this man ever since.” [6] Lownes noted earlier that “a change of conduct was early visible” when prisoners were informed “that their treatment would depend upon their conduct.” [7]

Thus, the establishment of prisons in the early United States was not only a more humane method of punishment, but was also used a tool of social control. This manner of thinking persisted for quite some time and manifested itself in such things as prison reform, in order to make the prisoners more compliant with greater societal norms. It is a manner of thinking that continues to affect prisons and prisoners to this very day.


1: Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishment (United States of America: Seven Treasures Publications, 2009) pg 10
2: Ibid, pg 82
3: Caleb Lownes “An Account of the Alteration and Present State of the Penal Laws of Pennsylvania,” in William Roscoe Observations on Penal Jurisprudence and The Reformation of Criminals (London, England: Black Horse Court, Year Unknown) pg 6 [Please note that this book was retrieved from Google Books]
4: Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1977) pg 232
5: Ibid, pg 233
6: Lownes, pg 16
7: Lownes, pg 11


“Prison Industrial Complex” It’s a term that many of us have come across in our lives, rather watching television or reading a book. However, there is only an understanding of the prison industrial complex in a modern-day context. The term was first coined in 1998 by either Eric Schlosser or Angela Davis and has evolved to the point where it is defined today as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to what are, in actuality, economic, social, and political ‘problems.’”

However, these “overlapping interests of government and industry” existed before the 1990s. The problem that comes from viewing the PIC as having originated in the past two decades is that it does not look give a full and comprehensive view as to how a prison industrial complex even came to exist. Furthermore, it doesn’t ask the deeper question: Why do prisons even exist? We have become so used to the existence of prisons that we don’t even question why they exist and how they came into being. These are important questions to ask if one wants to have an in-depth examination of the prison industrial complex. As a follow up to the previous question, one must also ask what the original purpose of prisons was. However, in searching for the answer, all points of view must be considered. We must examine the everyday common sense arguments such as “To punish those who have committed crimes” to more intriguing ones such as Michel Foucault’s argument that prisons were being used as a tool of social control.

In addition to this, an examination needs to take place of how prisons have changed over time. Not only in the sense of prison structure, but also in the layout of prisons, guards, the treatment of prisoners, punishment of prisoners, and the change in prisons from rehabilitation to punishment, just to name a few topics. Asking these questions add a greater depth to our knowledge and understanding of how the prison system works and thus may gives us clues on how to fight it. It will also allow for us to see who and/or what shaped and is currently shaping the minds of those who find themselves within the framework of the prison industrial complex.

Going back to the definition of the prison industrial complex, it mentions that there are economic, social, and political problems that prisons attempt to sweep under the rug by caging those who are victims of the current framework of power that favors those individuals with large amounts of wealth. The victims of the complex are usually those lower class individuals and usually people of color and, while usually male, are increasing female. Thus there is a socio-economic, racial, and gender lens to the situation, especially when one factors in the fact that many of those people who are the CEOs of privatized prisons are white upper-class men. There is also a labor aspect to the complex, as those inmates in private prisons are often used as a source of cheap labor by corporations.

Finally, there is the resistance to private prisons. Many people have realized the negative effects of private prisons and are fighting against them. This must also be examined as from there we can begin to conceptualize and articulate a world in which private prisons are not needed and prisons are radically different than they are today

This is what The Prison Project attempts to explain. It is an examination of the history of prisons, how they have changed over time, how they became privatized, the effect of privatized prisons on the US economically, socially, and politically, and the resistance to privatized prisons. It will conclude with an explanation of what it tells about American society that such institutions are allowed to exist. The entire goal is to give a detailed and in-depth view of how the prison industrial complex came to be and its effect on the society at large.