The penitentiary system in early 18th century America exploited racial ideologies, gender norms, and antipathy towards the poor to justify its existence and expansion. The first of the early penitentiaries was founded in Philadelphia in 1790 and functioned as a way to regulate the poor, especially poor women, indentured servants and African Americans, who attempted to lay claim to the new nation’s promise of liberty. Criminal convictions were harsh on those charged with violating vagrancy laws, minor theft, or disorderly conduct. In this pattern, we see a precursor to the dramatic growth of the U.S. prison system in the last forty years.
Jen Manion is Associate Professor of History at Amherst College and author of Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015), which received the 2016 Mary Kelley Best Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. Manion received a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University. She is co-editor of Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism (2004).