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Reviewed by:
  • Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America ed. by Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell
  • Rasmus R. Simonsen
Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America. Edited by Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2012.

Buried Lives is a highly narrative volume, exploring the imprisoned lives of early America. The essays comprising the volume trace the carceral experience from the oppressive physicality of prison architecture; through the overt and subtle bonds of power within the jails, almshouses, and prisons; to the corporality of disciplined and punished bodies. The volume reevaluates the methodology of Michel Foucault, David J. Rothman, and Michael Ignatieff, who tended to view the prison experience in mostly institutional, authoritarian terms, rendering mute the voices of actual inmates. The thesis of Buried Lives rests on the assumption that in order “to understand the nature of carceral institutions, the power that they wield, and the role that they have played in shaping the modern state,” we must pay “[c]lose attention to the words, actions, and injuries of those confined behind bars” (282). The essays in Buried Lives make clear that inmates in early America did not constitute a cohesive minority group: vagrants, prostitutes, slaves, abolitionists, and military prisoners all get their due in Buried Lives. This multifaceted scope contributes to the urgency and importance of the volume, as it exposes the often ingenious ways in which prisoners resisted their incarceration and formed new social bonds behind bars.

Buried Lives is divided into two sections: “Brokering Power behind Bars” and “Writing the Carceral Experience,” each containing five essays. In the first section, Simon P. Newman and Billy G. Smith’s essay, “Incarcerated Innocents,” details how structures of power in Philadelphia’s joint alms- and workhouse became vulnerable to inmate influence due to the fluid infrastructure of the building itself. Housing both the “deserving poor” and criminalized “vagrants,” often side-by-side, the dividing line between the innocent and the criminal populations blurred substantially, leaving holes in the punitive matrix for inmates to exploit. Jennifer Lawrence Janofsky’s essay, “‘Hopelessly Hardened’: The Complexities of Penitentiary Discipline at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary,” shows in fascinating ways how inmates at Eastern State in the early to mid-nineteenth century resourcefully managed to turn the physical circumstances of their incarceration to their advantage, disrupting the rule of silence by using the heating and plumbing pipes of the prison to communicate with one another; inmates thus “forg[ed] interpersonal relationships” by exploiting the “architectural deficiencies” of the otherwise state-of-the-art prison (109). Paradoxically, the innovations of Eastern State—each cell was outfitted with a commode and central heating—provided the means for resisting discipline, and the pipes of the prison became a literal metaphor for the underground workings of power on the inside. But, as Judith I. Madera reminds us in her contribution, “Floating Prisons: Dispossession, Ordering, and Colonial Atlantic ‘States,’ 1776–1783,” metaphors and other tropes remove us from the corporeal reality of imprisonment. In her account of life on British prison ships during the Revolutionary years, Medera shows how the “dispossession of water” and scarcity of food became part of “an imperial strategy for making [prisoners’] vital life functions contingent on the exercise of colonial power” (185). [End Page 196]

In the final essay of Buried Lives, Matthew J. Clavin’s “‘The Floor Was Stained with the Blood of a Slave’: Crime and Punishment in the Old South,” the link between slavery and punishment in early America is spelled out in hideous detail. Whereas bodily punishment had largely been abolished in the antebellum North, physical disciplining, such as “paddling” (270), “showed no signs of abating” in the Old South (271). Clavin’s essay demonstrates how the economic structure of slavery was intimately connected with the expansion of carceral structures in the Old South; in at least one case, the profit from a public auction of fugitive slaves went directly into the building of a new jail in Florida (277).

As the authors of Buried Lives exemplify in different ways, most prison narratives relied on sentimental or pathetic tropes to relay their message of injustice and brutality behind bars. Similarly, readers of this volume are bound...