How did the United States become what The Economist magazine recently referred to as the “jailhouse nation”? This was the question that three leading historians of incarceration addressed in the National History Center’s latest congressional briefing, held in a House hearing room this past Friday, October 9.
The statistics on the subject are staggering: the United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million people, a larger proportion of our population than any other nation on earth. Although Americans comprise only 5% of the world’s population, our country accounts for 25% of the world’s prison inmates. Over the past 40 years, the number of imprisoned Americans has increased 500%.
Understanding how this social disaster has come about demands a historical perspective. The briefing brought together three leading experts on the subject—Alex Lichtenstein, associate professor of history at Indiana University; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center at the New York Public Library; and Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history at the University of Michigan. All have written widely on the history of incarceration in America, and Muhammad and Thompson have served on a National Research Council blue ribbon panel on the causes and consequences of incarceration in the United States.
Alex Lichtenstein opened the session with a survey of US penal practices from the early 19th through the early 20th century. He argued that every new mode of incarceration—the first penitentiary, the Auburn factory prison system, the South’s use of convict leasing, followed by its turn to chain gangs—was presented at the time it was introduced as a reform designed to treat prisoners more humanely. Yet each would come to be seen as cruel and ineffective. The lesson Lichtenstein drew from this history was the need for skepticism about claims of reform: deeper questions need to be asked about why we incarcerate, whom, and for how long. ...