- Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America ed. by Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell
Prisons, Crime, American penal system, Slavery
In the introduction to this great collection of histories of incarceration, editors Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell point out that scholars have long ignored the tension between inmates and authorities, focusing instead on top-down approaches to power and penal authority (4). The editors point out how blind most earlier scholarship was to 1970s prison justice activism (7). One exception is the early work of Leslie Patrick-Stamp, who studied the connection between racial ideology and incarceration. Patrick-Stamp offers the concluding thoughts to the volume under review. She could have written, "I've been saying this for twenty-five years," but instead offers an encouraging reflection on the way Buried Lives advances the conversation by centering the experience and social locations of the incarcerated. The foreword of the volume is written by Michael Meranze, whose book Laboratories of Virtue, anchored in a Focaultian theory of power, gave more weight to the role of inmate actions in shaping penal outcomes. Meranze characterizes the volume's essays as part of the "third wave" of histories of punishment. [End Page 588]
This book builds on generations of scholarship charting the power, authority, and order imposed by America's penal regime, adding a dimension largely neglected—the experience of inmates themselves. On this point, the volume partly succeeds, carving out some new directions for scholarship. This approach is long overdue but not without its challenges; readers are repeatedly reminded how hard it is to break free from the dominant paradigm defined by Foucault, Rothman, and Ignatieff. While organizational and institutional records, published essays, and the personal writings of politicians and reformers lie well-preserved and neatly indexed in archives across the country, constructing personal narratives of intention, ideology, and community for inmates is very difficult. The book's editors are eager to build an intellectual and political bridge between the history of incarceration in early America, the critical prison studies community, and the growing decarceration movement. It is a crucial connection for the literature of early penal regimes to make. Centering its focus on the voices and experiences of the incarcerated, the volume is organized into two sections: brokering power and writing. Each section offers a vital contribution to the book's larger aim, while revealing challenges.
The first section combines well-known topics such as Philadelphia's prisons with less well-documented issues like the treatment of slaves in prison. Brokering power is something we can easily imagine in the present but have little knowledge of its past. Jason T. Sharples charts the workings of tribunals for alleged slave conspiracies in 1736 in Antiqua, highlighting the importance of communication among jailed slaves throughout the proceeding. More important than whether or not slaves actually conspired to rebel, Sharples argues, is the fact that whites believed they did. Sharples points out that as a "crime of speech and intended violence," conspiracy "relied heavily upon social interconnection and hushed conversations" (53). Tracing these social interconnections among slaves, prisoners, and others of the lower class provides a needed counternarrative to theories of power and agency.
Agency and intentionality are even more pronounced in Susan Eva O'Donovan's account of slaves in antebellum jails. O'Donovan contends that jails "could sometimes be used by the enslaved to advance their own interests" (125). This powerful prospect had limitations and could quickly turn the other way, as O'Donovan shows in a Savannah, Georgia, case in which slaveholders sent their slaves to jail to be punished at the hands of the keepers rather than inflicting violence themselves (129). It [End Page 589] is undeniable that inmates found opportunity for self-determination, agency, and even freedom through their time in prison. Evidence for this argument is diverse and represented in most of the essays—from running away, refusing to work, slowing down work, and refusing reform or religion, to forming bonds and friendships with other inmates...