"Americans incarcerate," writes Jennifer Graber in her new engaging book The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). "Though the United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population," she writes, "it has almost a quarter of its prisoners." Such facts make the long history of American prisons and their maintenance all the more interesting. Graber, an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at the College of Wooster, analyzes the "intersection of Christianity and politics in the American penitentiary system."* Her interesting account also looks at the religious dimensions of discipline and the ideas that undergirded punishment from the 1790s to the 1950s.
Randall Stephens: You write that antebellum Americans disagreed on much when it came to prisons, but most “affirmed religion's central importance” to prisons and reform. How was criminal justice “religious” in this era?
Jennifer Graber: If you were concerned about criminal punishment in the early republic, there were lots of things to fight about. Once the states began to build prisons, the big debate was between a discipline out of Pennsylvania that featured total solitary confinement and one out of New York that combined labor in workshops during the day with solitary confinement at night. Partisans for these two systems called the other side un-American and un-Christian. Beyond the rival disciplines, people debated the best way to reform inmates. They argued about what was more important: a good Sunday School teacher in Sing Sing or clean water and decent food in Sing Sing? Without fail, everyone interested in the debate claimed that “religion”—and they used the word “religion” even though they meant variations of evangelical Protestantism—was central to inmate reformation and the overall health of American prisons as strong institutions. What they didn't realize is that their common evocation of “religion” masked significant differences. For instance, they all thought that prison chaplains were necessary, but disagreed—sometimes violently—over the role these ministers should play inside institutions. Or, they all assumed that God ordained the civil authorities to punish lawbreakers, but varied on the question of that punishment’s severity.
Stephens: What kinds of problems did evangelicals target in the prison system? What can we learn about them by the sort of reforms they pursued?
Graber: Their first target was colonial-era punishments, whether it was steep fines, corporal punishments such as whipping or branding, or the gallows. They joined a trans-Atlantic movement to reform punishment and were active in the construction and administration of the first prisons. Protestant evangelicals—and I include many Quakers in this group, which might ruffle some historians’ feathers—envisioned the prison as an ideal site for prompting criminals’ conversion and reformation. Because these reformers had the new nation’s urban slums in mind, they emphasized the need for a decent physical environment, steady labor, education, and worship. Once the prisons were off the ground and running, reformers also had to take a stand on the reemergence of corporal punishment.
What can we learn about these evangelicals? Unfortunately, I think we see their utter inability to countenance cultural patterns and systems of meaning outside their own. Many of them were certain that criminals from poor neighborhoods would welcome the opportunity to go to prison. Despite the rising number of Irish inmates in the 1830s and 40s, it never occurred to them that it might be a good idea to have a Roman Catholic priest visit inmates on their deathbeds. Ultimately, for evangelicals the prison was one site for making the America they wanted. They had a vision in which all newcomers—as well as slaves and American Indians—would become like them. Of course, this perspective was shared by the broader upper and middle classes. It would have been strange for these reformers to see things otherwise. I mention it because this worldview helps explain how they approached criminal justice and why they failed to see that their prison experiments weren’t working.
Stephens: When it came to prisons, how did Alexis de Tocqueville, Gustave de Beamont, and other observers understand the American difference?
Graber: Tocqueville and Beaumont were coming from France, where there had been no substantial criminal justice reform. Other interested onlookers came from England, where most of the reform ideas came from, but had never been realized. For these folk interested in prisons, then, America was a blank slate, a place where something new and revolutionary could be attempted. Touring these facilities, however, brought many visitors out of abstract considerations and back to the difficulties of organizing an ethnically and religiously diverse population. Just because Americans could try something new did not mean that they could achieve the perfect institution. Slavery also cast a shadow over these tours of facilities where people labored against their will and could be whipped for disobeying. Foreign tourists struggled with the resemblance between prisons and slavery. In this way, America’s prisons both fascinated and repelled them.