- Capital and Convict: Race, Region, and Punishment in Post–Civil War America by Henry Kamerling
In Capital and Convict: Race, Region, and Punishment in Post–Civil War America, Henry Kamerling explores a pivotal moment in the development of American prisons, in the North and the South. Building on a growing literature by historians of the carceral state, Kamerling provides a comparative study of Illinois and South Carolina that yields important insights about the relationship of penal practices to industrial capitalism, racial ideology, and prisoners' resistance. Kamerling's comparative analysis demonstrates that penitentiaries in Illinois and South Carolina were similar in their service to capitalist development; at the same time, his comparison brings into stark relief significant differences between the two systems, such as their political motivations and ideological underpinnings.
Kamerling focuses tightly on the decades immediately after the Civil War to illuminate a moment when notions of citizenship were in flux and capitalism was ascendant. He organizes his book into three thematic parts. Part 1, "Politics," provides a granular look at how the contours and constituencies of state politics shaped prison life at the dawn of the second industrial revolution. In South Carolina, Kamerling argues, the prison was an important battleground for Republicans and Democrats in their struggle over the fate of Reconstruction, as Republicans challenged white conservatives' efforts to use the criminal justice system as a tool of both profit and racial subordination. In Part 2, "Ideology," Kamerling explains the two main approaches to penology in the postbellum period—"assimilation" in Illinois, which assumed the environmental causes of crime and the power of personal introspection to reform individuals into disciplined citizens, and "exclusion" in South Carolina, which assumed black criminality as inherent and figured [End Page 197] the penitentiary solely as a vehicle for ensuring a pliant labor force (chap. 5). Part 3, "Culture," demonstrates that whatever the intentions behind prison practice, the lived experience of both the keepers and the kept was determined less by penological theory and more by the dialectic of control and resistance.
One of the great benefits of looking so closely at the state level in a bounded period is that Kamerling is able to discern roads not taken. One of his most compelling discoveries is that during Reconstruction, African Americans in South Carolina wielded enough political power to challenge the shift to convict leasing and to advance instead a belief that prison could transform convicts into citizens. Theirs was an expansive view of state power, one that "understood the legitimacy of the state residing in its ability to aid its most desperate (black) citizens" and that echoed the rehabilitative ideal hegemonic in the penological discourse of the North (p. 37). This observation interrupts a teleological view of the rise of convict leasing in the New South, demonstrates that penal practices were intertwined with notions of the proper role of the state, and helps readers appreciate that the eventual brutality of southern prisons was part of the project of Redemption.
It is also useful to place the penological theories of Illinois and South Carolina side by side, for in so doing Kamerling shows that deeply rooted aspects of regional culture shaped ideas about the purpose of punishment. In the end, however, Kamerling argues that in both states there was a gap between theory and practice; both Illinois and South Carolina shared a commitment to maintaining order over meting out justice and to using "mass incarceration [in] the service of an ascendant industrial capitalist order" (p. 221). The similarities that Kamerling finds are useful not only to interrogating southern exceptionalism, but also to identifying the roots of our contemporary carceral state. To the extent that a punitive approach to the penitentiary was ever more prominent in the South than in the North, a century later the prison has become southernized, as "both politically and ideologically the nation embraced the historically regional approach to punishment developed by conservative whites throughout the post–Civil War South...