The Modern Prison Essay

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The modern prison was devised by American reformers who believed that people should not be tortured and that criminals could be "reformed" by incarceration, labor, and "penitence." But with the rise of industrial capitalism, unpaid prison labor became a source of superprofits, a trend accelerated by the Civil War, and the "penitentiary" became the site of industrial slavery conducted under the whip and other savagery.

Prior to the Civil War, the main form of imprisonment--African-American slavery--was, like the penitentiary, not to be regarded as torture. Slavery, indeed, was never legitimized by any claim that the slaves were being punished for crimes or anything else. A main cultural line of defense of slavery even maintained that the slaves were happy. This changed in 1865 when Article 13, the Amendment that abolished the old form of slavery, actually wrote slavery into the Constitution--for people legally defined as criminals: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States . . . ."

At this point, tortures routinely inflicted on slaves, especially whipping, became a standard feature of the main site of penal incarceration: the prison plantation. The antebellum plantation was merging with the "penitentiary" to create the modern American prison system. Ironically, the sexual deprivation of the prison was an additional torture not characteristic of the old plantation, where slave breeding was a major source of profit, while the old pathological fear of Black sexuality became a prime source of the sexual tortures endemic to the modern American prison, where people of color are not a "minority" but the majority.

The true nature and functions of the American prison started to become known through the tremendous surge of prison literature in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The river of prison literature poured into public culture in books,...
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