In recent years, historians have taken a keen interest in the history of the American carceral system; however, much of the historiography has examined crime and incarceration during the postbellum period. Jen Manion’s Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America [End Page 419] seeks to extend that historiography with a detailed examination of the role of gender, sexuality, and race in incarcerated lives in the early American republic.
In five chapters, this book explores “who was in prison, why, and what impact this had in the development of the penitentiary” between 1785 and 1835 (p. 5). Chapters one and two focus on the use of penal labor and the illusion of reform as centralcomponents of punishment. Manion notes reformers harnessed a significant amount of power by initiating practices to force changes with the inmate population. Chapter three delves into the criminalization of women, specifically those who refused confinement in the private sphere. Indigent women were often swallowed up into the carceral state by vagrancy and prostitution laws that were rarely enforced for men. Black women were particularly vulnerable to arrest, and Manion’s fourth chapter demonstrates the role of abolition in the rising interest in punishment and penal reform. Liberty’s Prisoners particularly examines the relationship between sex and criminality, but the book deals less with “how sex landed people in prison than with what kinds of sex people had and what it meant, once they were imprisoned” (p. 8). Manion’s final chapter argues that punishment is rooted in sexuality and “punishment was a vital component of the early American national identity”; public fears of sex paved the way for legislation and funding for the expansion of the carceral system and race, gender, and sexuality were key components of shaping these policies (p. 7).
Manion’s interdisciplinary work effectively blends an accessible introduction to Michel Foucault’s theories of punishment with a brilliant historical analysis of annual institutional reports and early national writing on the intersections of sexuality and punishment. The result clearly documents the ideologies and methodologies behind punishment and prison management. Manion’s analysis of court and prison records is perhaps the work’s greatest strength. These sources not only provide insight into prison management and policymaking, but also ways in which inmates resisted within incarcerated spaces and, more important, demonstrates the humanity of incarcerated people. [End Page 420]
Liberty’s Prisoners is an excellent contribution to the historiography of the carceral state and will be of great value to historians interested in the intersections between race, gender, and punishment.
CHARLENE J. FLETCHER-BROWN is a doctoral candidate in history at Indiana University–Bloomington and is also a member of a collective of historians teaching at the Indiana Women’s Prison.