In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America by Jen Manion
  • Ashley Rubin (bio)
Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America. By Jen Manion. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. 296. Cloth, $45.00.)

Liberty's Prisoners, by Jen Manion, offers an expansive examination of penal reform in early republican Philadelphia. A firm work of social history, the book explores the lives and experiences of male and (later) female reformers as well as black, immigrant, and poor (native-born) white women and men within and beyond the prison. Manion locates the prison's post-Revolution emergence in male social elites' anxiety over rebellious servants, workers, blacks, and women, who demanded the freedom promised to them in the Revolution. Officials forced these groups into labor as public punishment or into the prison, workhouse, or almshouse, which effectively reinforced blacks' and poor whites' past with slavery or enforced servitude and constructed women's role as unskilled domestics. Manion argues that insecure social elites "used the penal system to discipline and punish diverse citizens in ways that advanced social hierarchies rooted in race, gender, class, and sexual differences" (14). Disguised as a humanitarian and "sentimental" endeavor, penal reform went unchallenged despite its uses excluding these groups from full and equal citizenship.

While Manion addresses race, class, age, slavery, labor, and national identity, she stresses that sex and gender play a "central role . . . in the creation of the penitentiary" (6). Thus, in chapter 1, Manion describes how women were given "gender appropriate" labor (sewing, cooking, etc.), which helped to reinforce their proper social and economic role as unskilled workers both in and beyond prison. While men proved unruly and doubtful laborers, women, in their industriousness, proved to be model prisoners, which helped to solidify the role of labor in reformers' early plans for prison expansion. Chapter 2 addresses the meaning of masculinity for elite male reformers, including quasi-feminine traits such as sentimentality, as well as the appropriate displays of masculinity for working-class men. In chapter 3, Manion describes how legal and social [End Page 367] elites, newly influenced by the idea of separate spheres, sought to exclude women from public spaces and prohibit them from engaging in the same behavior as men—drinking, having promiscuous sex, selling goods on the black market, or generally socializing on city streets. Keen to intersections of race and class, Manion focuses especially on the challenges facing poor black women. Thus, in chapter 4, Manion examines the emergence of gender and racial classifications and the massive over-representation of black women in Philadelphia's prisons (141), particularly during the same time period that Irish women "became" white. Turning explicitly to sexuality in chapter 5, Manion examines the role of sex in prison—first, undesirable heterosexual acts (e.g., extramarital sex), then, same-sex relations, especially among men. Reformers' concern to avoid especially same-sex became their central motivation to employ solitary confinement.

In a way, Liberty's Prisoners is less about punishment than gender, class, and race; prisons are irrelevant to the narrative—they could be any instrument of power. Indeed, the titular phrase "carceral culture" is never defined or explained. The primary discussion of culture is the working-class culture of black, white, immigrant, and poor Philadelphians and the changing notions of gender (including masculinity) therein. Manion also discusses the experiences, activities, and relations prisoners formed, often understood as culture. However, it seems that by carceral culture, Manion intended the general ideology of confinement that emerged in this period. Indeed, there is some slippage between Walnut Street Prison, the almshouse, Arch Street Prison, Moyamensing Prison, and Eastern State Penitentiary. Unfortunately, by treating these institutions as somewhat interchangeable, Manion downplays the significant differences between the almshouse (a late-colonial development), the penitentiary, jails, and the modern prison, including the different emphasis on labor, order, and reformation; their different populations and reasons for being; and the important evolution from jail and almshouse to penitentiary to modern prison. By prioritizing the role of gender and sexuality, the work omits these central elements of prison history.

While the book relies heavily on the gender and sexuality literatures, it apparently ignores significant works in prison history published...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 367-370
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.