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  • Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America by Jen Manion
  • Richard Bell (bio)
Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America Jen Manion Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015 296 pp.

The foundational histories of the rise of the Anglo-American penal state published in the United States in the 1970s shone a bright spotlight on its techniques of domination and the political and ideological underpinnings of its carceral power. Together, David J. Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (1971), Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1977, trans. Alan Sheridan), and Michael Ignatieff’s A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850 (1978) described a revolution in authority in the fifty years either side of 1800 in which the penitentiary displaced the scaffold as the preeminent machinery of social control, and the soul displaced the body as the target of punishment.

According to Rothman, the rise of new corrective institutions like penitentiaries in early national America was the product of elite anxieties regarding rising immigration and urbanization, crumbling social deference, and the spread of market capitalism. Taking on the mantle of philanthropic reformers, a generation of genteel and generally devout professional men—among them Benjamin Rush, Jacob Rush, Thomas McKean, Tench Coxe, William Bradford, and Bishop William White—promoted carceral corrections as an enlightened and benevolent means to try to restore stability to a society they believed was in dangerous flux.

Jen Manion’s new book is part of a second wave of research that is adding nuance, context, and contingency to these enduring claims. Though its geographically encompassing subtitle would seem to suggest otherwise, Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America is a study of the expansion of penal power in a single city: Philadelphia. The site of the Constitutional [End Page 201] Convention and the largest and most important urban center in early national America, Philadelphia was the locus of every significant public debate about the practice of punishment in the half century after the American Revolution.

Famously, Philadelphia is also the birthplace of the world’s first modern prison. That grand, hulking edifice, Eastern State Penitentiary, opened for business on the edge of the city in 1829. The original design, conceived by the English-born architect John Haviland, envisaged a radial arrangement of seven cellblocks comprising 252 solitary apartments. To ensure that inmates need never leave its confines, or have opportunity to mix, conspire, or riot with other prisoners, each twelve-by-eight-foot cell featured state-of-the-art heating and plumbing systems designed to work year-round, as well as a private outdoor exercise yard. Left in seclusion to keep company with their consciences and perform light, edifying labor, prisoners at Eastern were expected to reflect and repent.

Manion argues that the clarity and precision of Haviland’s vision has long obscured the confusion and chaos of the five decades that preceded the development of individual isolation at Eastern State. Liberty’s Prisoners thus concerns itself with the several faltering and inconclusive experiments in public labor and reformative incarceration that followed the abolition of corporal punishment and the near abolition of capital punishment in Pennsylvania in the wake of the American Revolution. The book’s structure is thematic rather than chronological; five wide-ranging chapters tackle the role of work and of sentiment in these new penal institutions, as well as the processes of criminalization, classification, and behavioral repression that accompanied them.

Chapter 1 considers the convict labor scheme implemented in Philadelphia in 1786 following the passage of the state’s infamous wheelbarrow law. This chapter’s early pages echo many of the conclusions about the limitations of this public labor scheme first elaborated by Michael Meranze in his masterful Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835 (1996). Yet while Meranze focuses his exclusive attention upon the disruptive, disdainful, and thoroughly unrepentant behavior of the male convicts sentenced to hard labor on road-building and street-sweeping projects across the city, Manion also examines the experiences of the many female prisoners touched by the law. She argues that...


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