Penitentiaries and Prisons

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Historically the term "penitentiary" referred to institutions that accepted prostitutes who vowed to reform themselves and to relinquish their sinful ways. These goals of repentance and correction are apparent in the very name "penitentiary," which arises from the word "penitent." Prisons, however, typically have had no such pretensions; confinement in these places is meant simply to prevent escape and to protect people outside of the prison. Despite these semantic differences, however, in contemporary use "penitentiary" and "prison" have come to hold much the same meaning: they are sites of confinement that both protect the free public and offer an opportunity for reform. Isolation from the larger population, at least, and at times from the prison population itself, was to provide time for reflection and meditation. According to Quakers who originally established many of the prisons in the United States and their spiritual descendants who sought to reform the prison system in the mid-nineteenth century, because humans are essentially moral creations of God, reflection upon the acts that brought them to their imprisoned state would cause incarcerated persons to understand and amend their unlawful behavior. Certainly there was no shortage of incarcerated persons on whom reformers might apply their theories.

Though reliable statistics on incarceration are not available prior to 1925, prison populations do appear to rise in response to economic stagnation; in 1939 incarceration rates peaked at 137 persons per 100,000 before declining in the pre–World War II economy. A much earlier report by Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville reveals that from its inception the prison system served as a form of racial control as well as crime control. The French researchers, who came to America in 1831 to investigate the U.S. prison system and report back to the French government, wrote in On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833) that in states where the whites-to-blacks ratio was thirty to one, in those states' prisons the ratio was four to one. More disturbing is the rate in the South; from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, in southern states blacks accounted for 75 percent of people imprisoned.

Unfortunately few of these men and women could expect to emerge reformed from their time in prison. The Quakers' theory of reform is supported by only a few documented cases, but the penal system did inspire many prisoners to write. The experience of incarceration is also found in works by writers "on the outside" because the same experiences of isolation, meditation, and reformation that enliven convicts' writing also invigorate fiction. Often the prisoner and the writer on the outside converged when professional writers were jailed or when the experience of imprisonment offered the convict an opportunity to become a published writer. Though the prisoner created by the fiction writer may appear in many guises—the kidnap victim, the imprisoned man, and the slave—writings by prisoners largely fall into one of two categories: the confessional or the protest. These forms are hardly accidental; prison writing is an autobiographical form that tends to mirror contemporary social conditions. The confessional as an expression of repentance dominated the genre early in its development, from the 1700s through the early 1800s. But with the industrialization of the young United States, and the Industrial Revolution's concomitant demand for labor, which was often filled by imprisoned men and women, by 1835 protest became the primary theme in prison writings.


The earliest example of American prison writing dates from 1738 when the "Dying Lamentation and Advice of Philip Kennison" was published in Boston. In Kennison's confessional tone and desire for God's forgiveness this tract is typical of prisoners' writing published in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, prison narratives began responding to a desire in the reading public for adventure and a picaresque hero. Often semiautobiographical, these novels presented heroes who superficially confessed and sought redemption but in practice reveled in their daring and wit. This style of adventure novel is well represented by the Sketches of the Life of William Stuart, The First and Most Celebrated Counterfeiter of Connecticut, Comprising Startling Details of Daring Feats Performed by Himself—Perils by Sea and Land—Frequent Arrests and Imprisonments. . . . As Given by Himself (1854). A later subset of prison writing, the political/protest text, overlapped with the adventure tale and gradually came to dominate the genre. Prior to the American Civil War these writings largely came from people imprisoned for abolitionist activities. However, after the Civil War social and economic changes, especially in the emancipated South, created new challenges and a new sort of political prisoner, the convict laborer.

Prisoners had, from the earliest incarnations of the penitentiary, worked at various piecework labor and gardening. The protagonist of Theodore Dreiser's (1871–1945) The Financier (1912), Frank Cowperwood, is promised the simple and undemanding task of chair caning when he is imprisoned. But the most pernicious among the labor practices in post–Civil War prisons was the convict lease program. Found primarily in the South, under this system men and a few women convicted of petty and serious crimes were leased to men who purchased their labor for the price of offenders' fines. Indeed, demand for leased convicts became great enough to warrant entrapment of the poor and homeless, who were arrested on charges of vagrancy and of adultery with bribed prostitutes. In an indictment of the convict lease system Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932) incorporates the practice of arresting unemployed black men into his novel The Colonel's Dream (1905). Peter, a slave who cared for the colonel when both were children, is arrested for vagrancy. In a slave-sale inspired scene, the colonel purchases Peter's labor for the rest of the man's life from the local justice of the peace. Peter benefits from the colonel's kindness, but his capture and sale clearly condemn the widespread practice. Still, in terms of cost and economic benefit, convict labor was more advantageous than chattel slavery for the purchaser because the practice enforced social hierarchies and filled an economic need, and if the laborer died the plantation owner did not lose any property; he simply leased another convict from the county to replace the lost worker. And certainly many of the leased criminals did die. In his decisive study The Victim as Criminal, H. Bruce Franklin cites a statistic uncovered by R. W. Dawson, president of the Board of Inspectors of Convicts for the State of Alabama. Dawson learned that in 1869 the death rate for leased black prisoners was 41 percent (p. 102). Dawson's study focused on black males because these men were the targets of the entrapment schemes and comprised by far the largest demographic in southern prisons. Mirroring the South in a fashion, by the 1870s in the North another marginalized group, new immigrants, constituted up to half of the people sent to prison (Rothman, p. 126). U.S. prisons housed an excessive number of people belonging to minorities and had replaced a mission of reform with one of supplying inexpensive labor; in its capitalistic endeavors the penal system abused prisoners no less than did the sweatshops of the same period.


The organization and goals of these correctional institutions as they existed at the turn of the century reflected the changing belief systems of the late nineteenth century. The mid- to late nineteenth century in U.S. history is characterized by extremes; both laissez-faire capitalists and liberal social reformers practiced their callings. Social reformers and activists called for the abolition of slavery, for improved living and working conditions for the poor, for women's suffrage, and for the humane treatment of the insane and the convicted. Protesting for reform was not always a safe or pleasant calling, and many agitators were verbally and physically abused. Many too were jailed for their activities. Alice Paul (1885–1977), who, along with dozens of women, marched in front of the White House in 1917 for the right to vote, was arrested and imprisoned for seven months. Paul carried her protest to prison where she went on a hunger strike and was force-fed, a painful and humiliating procedure. Despite her treatment Paul maintained her commitment to women's rights, and after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment she worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Another well-known activist is Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802–1887), who advocated prison reform, though her primary work was with insane asylums and hospitals. It was in fact her work on behalf of the insane that brought her to the cause of prison reform. From 1841 through 1846, as Dix traveled throughout the United States locating people labeled insane, she discovered that many of her interviewees had been committed to local jails. Dix toured hundreds of jails, asylums, and poorhouses in states along the Mississippi River and throughout the southern United States. She was the only New England reformer to tour extensively in the South and was therefore one of the few activists to gain credibility with southerners. After gathering information from both patients and their caregivers, who were as often family members as professionals, Dix wrote "memorials," accounts of what she saw and learned, to state senates and assemblies. Dix convinced several legislatures to approve and fund asylums for the insane and also wrote to urge changes in the prison system. Despite Dix's efforts, however, the U.S. prison system continued to rely upon corporal punishment to maintain order and to house prisoners in cramped, four-by-seven-foot cells. After the Civil War, when the Reconstruction period again infused people with a spirit of reform and hope, another study of the prison system was commissioned.

Enoch Cobb Wines (1806–1879), a professional penologist, and Theodore Dwight (1822–1892), a lawyer and educator, toured penal institutions in eighteen states and Canada collecting seventy volumes of notes and documents. Their Report on Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada (1867) noted that no institution sought reformation as its primary goal, and the report listed many failures on the part of the U.S. prison system including the physical condition of facilities, lack of trained staff, and an absence of systematic centralized supervision of the institutions. Wines and Dwight further recommended that the judiciary employ indeterminate sentencing for setting incarceration terms, a system that provided an incentive for reformation. Prisoners would not be sentenced immediately upon conviction but would learn the length of their incarceration once they had shown, or failed to show, a willingness to participate in reformative activities. The first institution to practice many of the recommendations in the Wines and Dwight report was the Elmira Reformatory, opened by Zebulon Brockway in New York in 1876. Elmira failed to fulfill its promise, however, likely because the majority of prisoners sent there were already hardened criminals, a population largely immune to Brockway's efforts. Given the conditions of their conviction and imprisonment, certainly these prisoners had stories to tell.


Inspired, sometimes haunted, by the experience of incarceration and often with a desire to reform the conditions that put them there, many prisoners wrote. Jack London (1876–1916); O. Henry (William Sydney Porter, 1862–1910); and Julian Hawthorne (1846–1934), son of Nathaniel Hawthorne, all spent time in U.S. prisons. And though fewer in number, women also wrote of their experiences while behind bars. Agnes Smedley (1892–1950), a young journalist working with the birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, spent six months in the Tombs, a New York City jail used primarily for detention. Other writers took up the pen only after they had experienced the U.S. prison system. Typically these writers composed autobiographical sketches that answered public demand for adventure tales. These autobiographies provided vivid details to a voyeuristic audience, but they also delved into the conditions that made the prison system necessary. Thus the genre of prison writing moved from the confessional to a form of protest and call for social justice.

The most famous of the prison-inspired writers is Jack London. His classic novel The Call of the Wild (1903) and the widely anthologized short story "To Build a Fire" (1908) have introduced his work to millions of high school and college students, but London was also a fiery socialist whose writing incorporated his political views. His brief incarceration in 1894 for vagrancy only solidified London's devotion to the socialist cause, and many of his works directly or covertly indict the capitalism of the early twentieth century. London describes his conversion from an unquestioning individualist to an advocate of socialism in "How I Became a Socialist," first published in The Comrade in March 1903. Other London texts that fall into the genre of prison writing include a series of articles published in Cosmopolitan Magazine between June 1907 and March 1908 entitled "My Life in the Underworld" and the novels The Iron Heel (1907) and The Star Rover (1915). And while these works unmistakably reveal his political sympathies, none of London's work is unconnected to his time spent working as a convict and his later experiences as an outspoken socialist.

O. Henry was more fortunate than London in his jailhouse employment. After fleeing charges of embezzling while employed as a bank teller, William Sydney Porter returned to Texas when he learned of his wife's illness. Upon his return, Porter was captured, tried, and found guilty. While serving his time in an Ohio penitentiary, Porter worked as the prison's druggist and completed a thirty-nine month course in short-story writing. Porter adopted the pseudonym O. Henry while incarcerated and integrated details from his adventures as a fugitive into his narratives, writing a dozen short stories, including "Whistling Dick's Christmas Stocking," which appeared in McClure's Magazine in 1899, while he was still in prison. After serving three years of a five-year sentence, Porter was released. He continued to use his newly developed skill to support his daughter, Margaret, and was one of the most popular short-story writers of the early twentieth century, writing a story a week for two years for the New York World.

Another popular writer of the period was Julian Hawthorne. Convicted of mail fraud, Hawthorne spent almost a year in the Atlanta State Penitentiary. Days after his release, Hawthorne began drafting The Subterranean Brotherhood (1914), an account of his experience while incarcerated. In this report Hawthorne confesses that though he was familiar with prison writing prior to his confinement, only after he had spent time in prison did he understand prison life and its effect upon a person. In this narrative Hawthorne concludes that imprisonment for crime does not lead to reform, serves only to enslave the inmates, and must be abolished.

Like Julian Hawthorne, Agnes Smedley was a professional writer prior to her period of incarceration. After a brief marriage that ended in divorce, Smedley was working as a journalist in New York City when she became involved in Margaret Sanger's work in birth control and socialist politics. She was arrested in March 1918 and held for six months on the charges of violating anti–birth control laws and the Federal Espionage Act. The details of her time in the Tombs of New York City appear directly in "Cell Mates" (descriptions of Smedley's fellow inmates), which appeared in the New York Call, and less directly in the autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth (1929). Smedley's "Cell Mates" provides rare descriptions simply because these descriptions come from a woman, but they are also well written, sympathetic portrayals of the hardened, diseased women who cannot tell their own stories.

Like all trauma, imprisonment compels the person at the center of the experience to verbalize his or her trauma. This telling also satisfies a need in the listener, likely a mingling of voyeuristic and empathetic impulses. Occasionally this need to tell is recorded and can therefore satisfy a need both in readers contemporaneous with the writer and in readers of later generations. Prison writing from the turn of the twentieth century records the experiences of people who struggled to survive prior to social safety nets such as Social Security. But these men and women also inhabited a country in the throes of impending modernity, and science and humanitarian goals guided many reformers as they sought to ameliorate the worst excesses of industrialization and individualism. Recording their experiences permitted reformers such as Dorothea Dix and Jack London to report on and occasionally convince affluent people that the U.S. prison system did not reform and often needlessly punished people committed to penitentiaries. But these reports did not often find a wide audience. The fictionalized accounts of U.S. incarceration history have fared better and are still anthologized and read.

see alsoCapital Punishment; Jurisprudence; Reform


Primary Works

Dreiser, Theodore. The Financier. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.

Dwight, Theodore, and Enoch Cobb Wines. Report on Prisons and Reformatories of the United States and Canada. Albany, N.Y.: Van Benthuysen and Sons, 1867.

Secondary Works

Abramowitz, Isidore, ed. Great Prisoners: The First Anthology of Literature Written in Prison. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1946.

Brown, Thomas J. Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Davis, David Brion. Homicide in American Fiction, 1798–1860: A Study in Social Values. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1957.

Franklin, H. Bruce. Prison Writing in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Franklin, H. Bruce. The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Lightner, David L., ed. Asylum, Prison, and Poorhouse: The Writings and Reform Work of Dorothea Dix in Illinois. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Morris, Norval, and David J. Rothman, eds. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

New York Correction History Society. Available at

"Paul, Alice." In The Reader's Companion to Literature. Houghton Mifflin. Available at

"Prisons and Executions—The U.S. Model: A Historical Introduction." Monthly Review 53, no. 3 (July–August 2001). Available at

Rothman, David J. "Perfecting the Prison." In The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, edited by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, pp. 111–129. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Scheffler, Judith, ed. Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women's Prison Writings, 200 to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: Feminist Press at City University of New York, 2002.

Mary P. Anderson