so you’d like to add jails to your prison history syllabus.

When I started working on the history of American jails, I read a lot of crappy corrections textbooks that gave me a perception of American jail history that was at worst distorted, and at best flattened. It’s taken me some time to wade through the dregs to get to the good stuff. As such, I haven’t really dealt with jails as I’ve taught courses focused on prison history. I think this is problematic as pre-trial detention and short jail sentences are perhaps the most commonplace experiences of incarceration in this country today.

While jail historiography is still rather emergent (I’m doing my part), here are some rich pieces that might help you to incorporate the history of local incarceration and pre-trial detention into your syllabus (or your scholarship!). I did not include books already listed on my prison history reading list. This is by no means a comprehensive or definitive collection of jail scholarship, but rather, it’s a selection of pieces that might provide opportunities for historicizing jails. If access is an issue, I am happy to make any PDFs that I have available to you upon request. If I missed anything that you like, let me know and I’ll add it.

A word of caution- if you use sources on Walnut St. Jail during the early republic, be advised that it continued to be called a jail while it was operating as what we would call a state prison. I don’t think this distinction is stressed enough in the literature that deals with the rise of the Pennsylvania system. This transition is explored briefly in Negley K. Teeters,”Caleb Lownes of Philadelphia : 1754-1828: Administrator of the First Penitentiary in the World- The Walnut Street Jail,” The Prison Journal 43, no. 2 (October 1963), 34-45; the texts cited in footnote 14 are also instructive.

Frontier jails receive brief treatment in Rothman’s classic Discovery of the Asylum. There are a number of articles on 19th century jails that tend toward straight forward descriptions of conditions. One example of this is Philip D. Jordan “The Close and Stinking Jail,” The Pacific Northwest Quarterly 60, No. 1 (January 1969), 1-9.

Timothy J. Gilfoyle, “‘America’s Greatest Criminal Barracks’: The Tombs and the Experience of Criminal Justice in New York City, 1838-1897,” Journal of Urban History 29, no. 5 (July 2003), 525-54.

This should be a go-to nineteenth-century piece for historians because it is actually written by a professional, contemporary historian. You probably already know it. It really gets at how nasty nineteenth-century urban jails were. If you’re assigning anything on nineteenth-century Northern prisons, this article creates sharp contrast.

There was a pretty significant discourse about jails in the early twentieth century. Many interesting pieces are in the public domain and are digitally available. A few of these include:

American Prison Association semi-centennial, 1870-1920. County jails ‘in the light of the declaration of principles of 1870 (New York: American Prison Association, 1920).

This anthology was produced by the APA for their 50th anniversary because they realized that they includes some great short pieces such as “The Abolition of the County Jail,” by Frederick Howard Wines that captures the spirit of the jail abolition movement (as does this piece by his contemporary, Edith Abbott) and an overview of the state of jails by John L. Whitman, a former warden of Cook County Jail.

Kelly Lytle Hernández, “Hobos in Heaven: Race, Incarceration, and the Rise of Los Angeles, 1880–1910,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, 410–447.

I have a soft spot for hobos in history (Hans Mattick, below, was a teenage hobo) and this article does not disappoint. Hernández connects the “white scourge” of hobos to LA’s first jail crisis.

Chicago Community Trust, Reports Comprising the Survey of the Cook County Jail (Chicago: Calumet Publishing Co., 1922).

This study was commissioned to show the jail as it was and inform the planning of the new Cook County Jail. It includes a good discussion of social scientists they understood criminality in regard to jails. It includes a lot of advice that the builders of the jail ignored (this jail still in use today as Division 1).

Joseph F. Fishman with Vee Perlman, Crucibles of Crime: The Shocking Story of the American Jail (New York: Cosmopolis Press, 1923).

Fishman was a federal jail inspector who travelled the country to see the conditions that federal prisoners were detained in at county jails. This book is easy to read, sensational in tone, and captures the “schools for crime” discourse about jails prominent in the 1920s.

Myrl Anderson, Jail Administration (Springfield, IL: 1957).

A mid-century jail manual from a federal prisons administrator. If you like that kind of thing.

If you know of a great interwar or postwar / mid-century jail text, let me know- I am working on my contribution but I would love to hear about more research on that front. You may find especially great primary sources on the career of Anna Kross, the woman who ran Rikers during the 1950s and 1960s.

Hans W. Mattick, “The Contemporary Jails of the United States: An Unknown and Neglected Area of Justice,” in Handbook of Criminology, ed. Daniel Glaser (Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing Company, 1974), 777-848.

If I could only assign one piece on jails, this would be it. Mattick was a historically-minded scholar-activist who was regarded as “the architect of jail reform in Illinois,” a turn he took after working as assistant warden at Cook County Jail (full disclosure: Mattick is the focus of one of my dissertation chapters). In light of his legacy, this is a culminating expression of Mattick’s expertise. Mattick addressed the differences between prisons and jails, the history of American jails, the state of American jails in the 1970s (“if cleanliness is next to godliness, most jails lie securely in the province of hell” p.802), and the limits of jail reform in light of history. I would choose this over other works from the 1970s and the jail chapter in The Oxford History of the Prison

John Irwin, The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

This book remains the seminal criminal justice text on jails that depicts the San Francisco jail in the 1980s. The University of California has a new edition out with a great forward by Jonathan Simon. Irwin’s perspective was informed by his own experience with incarceration, which makes him an interesting historical actor in his own right.

John P. Walsh, The Culture of Urban Control: Jail Overcrowding in the Crime Control Era (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013).

This book is prohibitively expensive, but I think a selected chapter could provide students with helpful scholarly framing that would compliment contemporary news articles on jail issues at Rikers Island and Cook County Jail.

Loïc Wacquant, “Class, race & hyperincarceration in revanchist America,” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (Summer 2010), 74-90.

Wacquant situates contemporary jails within the wider criminal justice system and neoliberalism; I think this article is fine distillation of ideas he delves into in Prisons of Poverty. This article provides some interesting concepts for students to unpack.

UPDATE: 11/18/2016: “How Not to Build a Jail,” an article on the DC Jail from Reason would be interesting paired with news articles from the 1970s or selections from Goldfarb’s book. Also looking forward to City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández, coming out in April 2017 from the Justice, Power, and Politics series at UNC Press.

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6 thoughts on “so you’d like to add jails to your prison history syllabus.

  1. What a great list — thanks for putting it together! If you’re interested in contemporaneous descriptions of conditions at jails, from litigation documents, you might try http://clearinghouse.net. Search for jail conditions cases, and sort by filing year — they’ll be in reverse date order. The oldest are from the 1970s.

  2. That’s great! If you ever use it as a teaching tool, you should let me know how. I’m going to have a new page at some point soon that presents ways to use these kinds of documents in history classes.

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  4. Pingback: America’s jail crisis: historicizing the Vera Institute report. | Melanie Newport

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