The Rise of the Penitentiary


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Prisons and Punishment in Early America

Adam J. Hirsch

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Before the nineteenth century, American prisons were used to hold people for trial and not to incarcerate them for wrong-doing. Only after independence did American states begin to reject such public punishment as whipping and pillorying and turn to imprisonment instead. In this legal, social, and political history, Adam J. Hirsch explores the reasons behind this change.
Hirsch draws on evidence from throughout the early Republic and examines European sources to establish the American penitentiary's ideological origins and parallel development abroad. He focuses on Massachusetts as a case study of the transformation and presents in-depth data from that state. He challenges the notion that the penitentiary came as a by-product of Enlightenment thought, contending instead that the ideological foundations for criminal incarceration had been laid long before the eighteenth century and were premised upon old criminological theories.
According to Hirsch, it was not new ideas but new social realities—the increasing urbanization and population mobility that promoted rampant crime—that made the penitentiary attractive to post-revolutionary legislators. Hirsch explores possible economic motives for incarcerating criminals and sentencing them to hard labor, but concludes that there is little evidence to support this. He finds that advocates of the penitentiary intended only that the prison pay for itself through enforced labor. Moreover, prison advocates frequently involved themselves in other contemporary social movements that reflected their concern to promote the welfare of criminals along with other oppressed groups.

Kingsbury Memorial Fund

"A most worthy addition to the growing literature on criminal law history."—Harold M. Hyman, Rice University

"Fascinating. . . . An excellent book."—Randolph Roth, Journal of the Early Republic

"A new look at the origins of penology in the United States. Within the framework of legal history, Adam J. Hirsch explores how the use of prisons for the punishment of convicted criminals in the United States emerged. . . . Hirsch's graceful style and clear organization enhance his presentation of this detailed study. His use of sources is extensive and admirable . . . Hirsch brings a refreshing new examination to the historical study of prisons."—Judith R. Johnson, The Historian

"A persuasive new interpretation of the origins of the U.S. prison system. . . . Highly readable. . . . [It] will serve as the definitive work on the rise of the penitentiary for some time to come."—Nicole Hahn Rafter, American Historical Review

"This concise and neatly constructed book adds significantly to our understanding of a durable chapter in the history of American criminal justice. It is not, and cannot be, the last word on the subject; but historians of corrections and social historians in general will have to reckon with it for many years to come."—Lawrence M. Friedman, Law and History Review

"Hirsch contends convincingly that the ideological roots of the European and North American penitentiary are to be found in part in Tudor England. . . . A well researched and useful addition to knowledge about the history of modern penality."—Bill Forsythe, Labour History Review

ISBN: 9780300042979
Publication Date: June 24, 1992
Publishing Partner: Kingsbury Memorial Fund
243 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
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