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Penitentiaries, Reformatories, and Chain Gangs: Social Theory and the History of Punishment in Nineteenth-Century America

NCJ Number
Mark Colvin
Date Published
304 pages
This examination of penal change in America focuses on three case studies from the 19th century that demonstrate shifts in the interpretation of punishment: the rise of penitentiaries in the Northeast; the changes in treatment of women offenders in the North; and the transformation of punishment in the South after the Civil War.
These case studies are used to apply four theoretical explanations of penal change that clarify the history of penal authority and the current state of America's correctional system. These are the Durkheimian approaches, which focus on the functions of punishment for maintaining moral order and social solidarity and for combating anomie; Marxian approaches, which relate punishment to economic relations and ideology for maintaining class rule; the perspective of Michel Foucault, who relates changes in punishment systems to larger developments in scientific knowledge of human behavior and in applications of the "technologies of power"; and the insights of Norbert Elias, who argues that social institutions in modern societies are shaped by "civilized sensibilities." These four perspectives offer rival, but not necessarily incompatible, explanations for the rise and development of punishment systems. All of them point to forces of the larger society in shaping penal sanctions, but differ in their emphasis on particular aspects of the larger society. In addition to discussing the application of these four theoretical explanations of penal change, the book examines such concepts as how punishment differs from reform, the treatment of women in reformatories, and the notion that the use of convict leasing and chain gangs of black prisoners in the South is a perpetuation of plantation slave labor. 171 references and a subject index