Friday, March 23, 2012

The Scholars Speak - Jennifer Graber

Prisons in Antebellum America

Today's edition of The Scholars Speak comes from one of our favorite historians and people - Jennifer Graber. She is the author of The Furnace of Afflication: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America and is currently writing a religious history of the Indian Wars of the mid and late nineteenth century. Below, she discusses how to integrate the history of prisons into the U.S. history survey. This is especially interesting to me, since we were just discussing Alexis de Tocqueville and his reflections on transportation changes in antebellum American in one of the primary selections in Major Problems. The Frenchman first journeyed to the U.S. not to study democracy - but to study prisons! How he got from one to the other is an amazing story, and the importance of prison reform is one of those fascinating elements we often overlook too often in the survey.

What got you first interested in prisons?
1) I was primarily interested in prisons. When I first entered graduate school, I thought I would focus on the post-Civil War era, when a big prison reform movement took off. But when I looked at the literature on prisons written by legal and institutional historians, I found very little reflection on the impact of Protestant reformers during the prison's formation in the early republic and antebellum periods. Historians mentioned that Quakers and other Protestant reformers were part of the prison's beginnings, but they did not specify how or why. I figured I couldn't understand the post-CW reform movement until I had explored the reformers involved several decades earlier.

How can we integrate the study of prisons into teaching the U.S. history survey? They seem to be completely absent.
2) You're right. Prisons have taken a back seat to coverage about economic and political issues, as well as slavery, in standard treatments of the era. But the prison is wrapped up in all three. Folks making arguments about economic conditions in American cities cited inmate populations as some of their primary evidence for economic problems. They associated urban poverty and economic depression with expanding prisons. Also, prisons were another site of heated disagreement between Whigs and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. In many states, reformers associated Whig politicians with milder prison disciplinary regimes and emerging Democratic coalitions with cruelty to inmates. And here, of course, is a tie to slavery. Slavery stood - at least for interested parties in North - as a kind of outer limit in debates about prison discipline. Folks who sought to abolish corporal punishment compared the warden's lash to the slavemaster's. Folks in the North simply could not have discussions about prison discipline without differentiating their plans and programs from practices on plantations.

When I think about how someone might integrate the story of the first American prisons into a unit on this period, I'd say make it a case study. One could focus on a few institutions, a few reformers, and a few politicians to show all the ways that massive changes in antebellum life (including economics, politics, and slavery mentioned above, but also immigration, revivalism, and urban labor) can be shown to influence the prison's development.

Prison at Auburn, New York (c 1830)
http://data2.archives.ca/ap/c/c012623k.jpg
What primary source would you recommend using to incorporate prisons into the survey?
3) I would choose sources that show the ways that reformers imagined the prison to work and the ways inmates experienced it. To do that, I might choose a piece called "Sword of Justice, Wielded by Mercy," which was written by evangelical reformers at the Gospel Herald in New York. The authors wrote in the voice of an inmate and described a prison experience that prompted recognition of sin and movement toward salvation. They make prison sound tough, but worth it. I would contrast this piece with a narrative actually written by an inmate, such as Horace Lane's Five Year's In State's Prison, in which he reflected on his terms in prisons at Auburn and Sing Sing. Unlike the first piece, Lane details the spiritual depression that prison prompted. He writes of a desire to be saved that was crushed at every turn by staff violence.

Since we're such big fans of your first book, we were wondering what we could look forward to?
4) I'm working on a new book about religious transformations prompted by the violence and displacement of Indian wars on the western frontier.

24 comments:

  1. After reading this post what strikes me as interesting is how Jennifer Graber is able to tie prisons to Antebellum America by stating how Prisons are wrapped up in economic and political issues, as well as slavery. This ties to Alexis de Tocqueville in Major Problems chapter 11 in his journey he studied democracy and prisons. In the antebellum america prisons had a major part in the issues of economic and political importance. Folks making arguments about economic conditions in American cities cited inmate populations as some of their primary evidence for economic problems. Also, prisons were another site of heated disagreement between Whigs and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. In many states, reformers associated Whig politicians with milder prison disciplinary regimes and emerging Democratic coalitions with cruelty to inmates. Throughout the era many political parties were split on the idea of equality and treatment toward in-superior groups such as treatment of inmates and this also lead to debate over treatment of slaves and even slavery.

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  2. After reading Jennifer Graber's post dealing with prisons and its economic and political importance, it made me think of slavery and its economic and political importance in America in chapter 4 in Major Problems. Several documents reference slavery and how it effects the nation in war, when black men were limited to certain roles in the war, and also in politics, when only three-fourths of slaves were counted in a population count so states were given a smaller amount of delegates to represent them.

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  3. After reading Jennifer Graber's post describing the presents of prisons in United States history it strikes me that prisons were also related to politics, economic problems, and slavery.In this post Jennifer describes how slaves were treated in much the same way as inmates in the prisons. She also relates how economic struggle can lead to many people ending up in prison, because they become more desperate and upset. In chapter 11 of Major Problems document one about Tocqueville describes his study of relating democracy and the prisons in much the same way as Graber's post describing men as,"they have abolished the troublesome privileges of some of their fellows, but they come up against the competition of all" meaning that in a democracy not all men will be given the same privileges in the same way as in the prisons.The men in prisons were stripped of their rights. Even politicians disagreed with the level of disciplinary in prisons. In Antebellum America the prisons were closely related to that of which went on in normal society.

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  4. After reading the post i found it really interesting how Graber compared the treatment of prisoners to the treatment of slaves and how she was also able to tie prisons in to antebellum America. Her comment about the comparison of the prison warden's whip to the slaveowners whip was very powerful to me. I also found it very interesting how her interview included a discussion of democracy which can relate to Tocqueville's document in chapter 11 of Major Problems. Although we live in a Democracy, if you don't follow the rules, you will lose your rights and privileges. "No matter how a people strives for it, all the conditions of life can never be perfectly equal." Prisoners may not be treated equally to a free citizen because they broke the law and lost their rights in a way. This can be compared to the way slaves were not treated equally to free citizens. This is where the document connects back to Graber's interview and the information she talked about on prisons. Democracy, equality, prisons, and slavery are all connected in some way. I find this very interesting and can understand why it would cause someone to study these connections.

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  5. Having read this post and the "Senate Candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas Debate their Positions on Slavery" in Major Problems it strikes me that the Southerners' debate on prisons makes more sense then the way Northerners' argue. According to Graber, Northerners argue that prisons are much the same as plantations in the way they treat the prisoners as slaves by beating them. However, even though the prisoners are being beaten, and given that the prisoners are white, the prisoners are still not treated as poorly as slaves. Slaves were the lowest of the low in society and nobody could be lower than them, even if it was a man on death row. So arguing that prisoners and slaves are alike makes no sense and is inaccurate.

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  6. Heather M. (814581710)April 16, 2012 at 1:27 PM

    After reading "The Scholars Speak-Jennifer Graber" post, it was interesting to me how Jennifer Graber connects prisons to the different economic and political issues of the era before the civil war. For instance, she notes how Whigs were associated with mild discipline in prisons and Democrats with harsh discipline; this shows the connection of prisons to political issues and even to slavery. Slaves and prisoners were connected through their similar ways of punishment, as Graber points out. Therefore, it was easier to fight to "abolish corporal punishment" when comparing the "warden's lash to the slavemaster's." This relates to Alexis de Tocqueville's comments on equality in northern society in Major Problems, chapter eleven. Tocqueville claims that in the North "prerogatives of birth and fortune are abolished" which gives the common man the chance to move up in the world. Graber's assertions about slavery and prisons and Tocqueville's comments on equality in the North relate to each other because they both focus on the North's ability to move towards true equality of all men regardless of race or status in society. The North's ability to do so is what paved the way for prison reformations and the abolition of slavery/

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  7. After reading this post I began to understand Jennifer Graber's view on prisons in United States history. What caught my attention was her comment on how prisons were a topic of disagreement between political groups. She tied the disagreement between political parties on the treatment of inmates to slavery during the Antebellum period. In class today we discussed how the North and South disagreed on the matter of slavery. Just like Graber discusses how the Whigs vs the Jeffersonian Democratic Republicans viewed the treated of inmates differently, the North and South during the Antebellum period conflicted with the concept of free labor vs. slave labor. Professor Blum continued to explain this concept by highlighting the Dred Scott vs. Sanford case. This case dealt with controversy over Dred Scotts freedom due to him living with his master in the North (Minnesota-above the 36/30 line) for 12 years. Blum continued to explain that Justice Roger B. Taney was in charge of this case and due to his involvement there was confusion within the federal government over issues of territory and slavery. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's opinion over slavery related to the Dred Scott v. Sanford case is also highlighted in Major Problems chapter 13 (pg.393). Both in lecture and throughout Major Problems, the slavery divide between North and South is extremely controversial. The main issue for most (which is explained by Taney's reflection in Major Problems) is "Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into the is country, and sold as laves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by he Constitution of the United States....?" Similar to prisoners, slaves don't have rights according to Taney and most southerners. And because prisoners lost their rights when they were sentenced, why should prisoners be treated any differently than slaves. In essence both have just as much rights as a horse (like Professor Blum said in class).

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  8. After reading Jennifer Graber's post, I found it interesting how she linked prisons in Antebellum America to slavery. She stated that parties in the North often saw slavery as a kind of outer limit in the debates about prison discipline. Prison discipline was often compared to the discipline of slaves in the southern states. This is related to Alexis de Tocqueville's, who studied democracy and prisons in North America, document in Chapter 11 of major problems. She talks about how "no matter how a people strives for it, all the conditions in live can never be perfectly equal" which is the case for prisoners and for slaves in the 17 and 18 hundreds.

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  9. In today's America, the knowledge of Prisons in Antebellum America is not frequently mentioned. I myself don't recall learning much about prisons in American History. I thought it was interesting how Graber made a connection between prisons and slavery based on the cruelty. Thinking about modern day, society is aware of the terrible conditions that inmates live under, but to think back to a time where democracy was rarely unheard of yet, I can only imagine how much worse inmate treatment was. That is why it is convincing that Graber is comparing imprisonment and slavery. Another thing I found interesting was how significant it is to learn about prisons in Antebellum America because of the economic conditions it caused. Graber mentions "They associated urban poverty and economic depression with expanding prisons." Graber's point is because so many people came from impoverished lifestyles, they were more likely to engage in crime. When crimes increased, the result was an excessive amount of inmates. This could even cause further problems because the more inmates prisons have to take in, the less resources are available to support these inmates, and the quality of prisons go down. I think the primary source Garber suggests using to incorporate prisons into the survey by recording an actual inmate's experience is a clear and direct source to finding out about those prison experiences. Even as far into depth we can learn about them, the reality of it all is this. In Chapter 11 in Major Problems, Tocqueville says "Among democratic peoples men easily obtain a certain equality, but they will never get the sort of equality they long for." I highly agree with this quote; I feel like so many changes can be made involving prisons, government, etc. but there will always be those flaws in the "democracy/equality" a country agrees to. No man is fully ever satisfied with what he has; there is always a desire, and in this case a desire of true equality.

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  10. After reading this post, I saw how Jennifer Garber is intelligent for intertwining the history of prisons with the history of Antebellum America—two things you would not expect to relate to one another. What struck out to me most was how Graber suggested incorporating prisons with teaching U.S. history. I like that she is interested in finding primary sources that reflect both sides of the story—how reformers imagined prisons to work versus the actual experiences inmates had in prison. Likewise, documents two and three in chapter two of Major Problems, display two contrasting point of views regarding the benefits of indentured servitude. In document three, George Alsop argued that indentured servants benefited from their lifestyle and the contract that bound he or she to his or her master. In contrast, however, servant Richard Frethrone (in document two) depicted the reality of indentured servitude and the harsh conditions servants experience. I’m sure many of us can relate to this matter of “two different point of views.” For example, when two friends get into an argument, one friend believes the argument is the other’s fault and vice versa. Oftentimes, reality is much different that what the ideal situation is expected to be. Thus, I think it is important to hear both sides of the story—which is how Graber suggests students should learn history.

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  11. After reading this post, I can conclude that the prisons were tied directly to the treatment of slaves. Although most the prisoners were white, they were beaten and abused like the black slaves. Tocqueville in Major Problems chapter 11 mentioned how no matter how much a society strives for equality, it will never be fully achieved (at least how you want it to be). This blog post is a prime example of how the equality was reversed and the whites were treated like the blacks and confined like them as well. I like how she tied the two topics together. I would have never thought of it that way.

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  12. After reading this post, I can conclude that prisons were a way of torture towards the whites in a similar fashion as the black slaves received. Tocqueville in Major Problems chapter 11 mentioned hoe that no matter how much a society strives for equality, it will never be achieved in the manner that you hope for. This blog post is a prime example of how the roles are reversed. The prisons are primary white people contained and they are beaten and abused like those the black slaves. And are contained like them as well. The equality was reversed for what they wanted. I like how she tied the two topics together.I would have never thought of it that way.

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  13. Jennifer Graber's post higlighted many unseen topic of the prison system during Antebellum America. I really enjoyed how Graber related the prisons to slavery. During this time in American history, the growing hostility among the southern and northern states only increases as more Americans brought the issue of slavery up. Graber mentions how people were using the treatment in the prisons as political backfire with statements such as the Whigs treated their prisoners kinder and the Democrats were more vicious and cruel. The north then found themselves later needing to explain themselves and "differentiating their plans and programs from practices on plantations." This topic reminded me of William Byrd's description of his treatment of slaves in Major Problems Chapter 2. William Byrd clearly unfairly punished his slaves, but he did not see it that way. He felt he was saving them and following the Christian way. For the prison system, they did not purposely treat prisoners as slaves, that was just the way discipline was handled. Jennifer Graber uses a single topic to incorporate many ideas from Antebellum America that many would not realize related together. I found her entry very interesting and eye-opening.

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  14. Now that I have read this post, I realize that the prisons caused more turmoil than I had realized during Antebellum America. It never occurred to me that the relationship between slaveowners and wardens was so similar. The slaveowners whip the slaves and the wardens/prison guards beat and abuse the prisoners. What the slaves didn't know or realize is that white men were being mistreated as well. Maybe the long years of mistreatment amongst the slaves does not truly compare to prison life that happened to white men for a shorter period of time; there was still abuse and savagery happening behind closed doors among both groups. Both white prison men and slaves were trapped and enslaved in some way. Slaves were assuming that they were the only ones with rights taken away and freedom never to be seen. African-American Abolitionist David Walker says, "Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace, and happiness together. For we are not like you, hard hearted, unmerciful, and unforgiving" (299). This quote made me realize how alone slaves felt and how tortured they truly were. Furthermore, this post made me realize how involved politics really were in prisons. During lecture and reading of Major Problems, Blum discussed how slavery was extremely divided and although Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were friends, they disagreed on the topic of slavery. Relating that topic to this entry, politicians seemed to disagree on prison rights as well. I never realized that democrats and Whigs had such different views on the matter.

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  15. After reading this post, it strikes me the most that envangelical reformers wrote in the voice of an inmate and explained that prison moved them towards a good path, while a true inmate explains a desire to be saved from the staff violence. This reminds of the indentured servants. In chapter 2 of Major Problems, indentured servant, Richard Frethorne, begs his parents to remove him from this position. He laments that he is treated badly and is poorly feed. He wishes to be sent home. As opposed to Frethorne's cry, George Aslop, a resident of Maryland, argues how these servants profit from life in the colonies. He explains that these servants, during the four contracted years, are only being prepared to become Masters themselves. For that, the indentured servants should not complain, since after they become free, they will receive priviliges. Frethorne can be taught as the inmate that explains what is really going on inside prison while Aslop can relate to the envangelical reformers.

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  16. Jennifer Grabers post attempts to show connections between prisons with respect to economic issues, political issues, as well as, slavery. What I found very interesting was the parallel between the political divide of the Whigs and the Democratic Republic and the North and South divide based on views of slavery. Looking deeper into the roots of the issues which arose we can see how prisons and slavery show a similarity. Graber states that 'Slavery stood - at least for interested parties in North - as a kind of outer limit in debates about prison discipline. Folks who sought to abolish corporal punishment compared the warden's lash to the slavemaster's',which implies that political issues are bound to arise with conflicting opinions and beliefs. Some people opposed slavery and some people were for it and it is the same people who supported slavery who would not oppose corporal punishment. As expressed in document 1 in chapter 11, by Alexis de Tocqueville's, he suggest that equality can never be gained even within a Democracy; which proves true due to the link between slaves and prisoners who were seen by some people as lesser people and therefore not needing to be treated as humans.

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  17. By: A.Lovick

    Having read this post and Alexis de Tocueville Marvels at the Mobile Northern Society, 1831 in Major Problems Ch.11, it is evident that nothing will ever be complete or perfect no matter how many times you fix the problem. Jennifer Graber states in this blog that people in Antebellum America associated urban poverty and economic depression with expanding prisons. I found this very interesting because Alexis de Toucueville stated that no matter how a people strive for it, al the conditions of life can never be perfectly equal. So even if they were to solve urban poverty and economic depression, what other things would be attributed to the expansions of prisons? This goes to show that the grass is greener on the other side and on the other other side the grass if even more greener. The best part about this train of thought is its no different from Antebellum America than it is today. Man will never get the equality they long for according to Alexis de Tocqeville.

    P.S. couldn't figure out this blog thing.

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  18. After reading this post I found the way that Jennifer Graber connected the economic conditions to the jails was enthralling, but the way that she compared the treatment in the prisons to slavery was the mot interesting part of the post. She says, “Folks who sought to abolish corporal punishment compared the warden's lash to the slavemaster's.” Here she is showing how the people would say that it was unfair to the prisoners to be treated this way in the North, where the citizens are supposed to be free from the evils of slavery. This reminded me of William Byrd, whose diary entry is found in Major Problems. He describes the way he unkindly treats his slaves on a day to day basis. In the North, people are supposed to be free of this kind of treatment, however, they are subjected to it in the prison system.

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  19. When reading about the prison systems in the United States it is interesting to learn that historians can study the prison demographics to determine what was going on in history at the time, and what kind of crimes where committed. She also stated that the protestant reform supposedly helped the prison system structure but was hard to specify without going back in history to determine if it is correct. The prison system was based around the quakers ideology that prison was a place where the criminal could be in segregation from the outside would making them get closer to God (ie: change). I feel like the quaker prison system is ineffective, since most people go to prison and come out to go right back in. Also when she states that prisoners and slaves were similar in punishments. The punishments probably were harsh, but a slave can be beaten without cause, which is unfair, and incomparable to a prisoner who broke the law and was beaten. in chapter 2 of Major Problems, William Byrd punished/beat his slaves unfairly, but thought that he was doing the godly thing by "saving" his slaves. Although she stated the Northerners were trying to get rid of corporal punishment, and make the prison systems less "plantation" like, i feel the punishment is needed for criminals. before doing anything there are always consequences. if you are a grown man making poor decisions you deserve whats coming. Although this article was interesting, prisons and slaves cannot be compared. Both are harsh, but there is no choice in one, while there was choice in the other. these 2 topics are on two different parts of the spectrum, other than the harsh punishments taken out on people. slaves punishments were just beatings that the master could do at anytime since they were property. Prisoners were citizens that did wrong. These 2 topics are NOT comparable in my opionion.

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  20. As I have read this post my eyes were opened up to how interconnected the prisons were with all aspects of antebellum america as Graber discussed its comparison with economics, politics and religion. It is interesting though how she incorporated its relatedness to economics because in todays society some would argue we are experiencing the same thing. There was an economic depress back in that era due to the expansion of prisons where as today the same thing is occurring, we have over populated our prisons and our taxes are being dedicated to the expansion of more. This proves the point that history does end up repeating itself. The mistreatment of slaves has carried on to the prisons as the abuse of being a slave was described in Major Problems by an African American Slave Olaudah Equiano where she recounts her horrors of enslavement, "One white man in particular I saw, when we permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it (MP 47)." Although this quote is not direct relation to a specific prison, I feel that the era of enslavement in the south was like a prison for these african americans. I appreciate the work thus done by Jennifer Graber and I hope to read more of her posts.

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  21. After reading Jenifer Graber's post, I can say that i feel the prisons were in a way connected to the way slaves were being treated. All prisoners whether black or white, were all badly treated and abused. I feel I can connect the blog to Tocqueville from Major problems in chapter 11. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote how nothing will ever be complete no matter what they do or how hard they try to solve the problem. I feel that the blog was a good example on how both blacks and whites were being treated like slaves in the prisons. This comes to show that blacks weren't the only ones suffering back then. Whites in prisons were equally beaten and put in horrifying conditions such as slaves were. But in my opinion, the prisoners did deserve it because they had committed a crime. Slaves on the other hand didn't deserve it because they were innocent. Graber's blog could also connect to how the slaves were being treated on the ships on the way here. They were put in extremely bad conditions and suffered cold and wet nights.

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  22. After reading historian Jennifer Graber's post, I find it interesting how she mentions the comparison of prison facilities to that of slavery. I don't see much of a difference between either institution, yet there is more of a negative connotation when it comes to slavery. In both cases, you are depriving people of their rights, yet one is worse than the other in the views of many. However, Alexis de Tocqueville viewed this as a need that would help improve society. Also, when the women's rights scene began heating up, prisons were viewed as a positive way to help reform criminals back into good citizens and keep the community safe.

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  23. Before reading about this blog post, I honestly had no idea about the prisons and their value back then since there was never a real focus on that area of history taught to me. However, it was interesting to read about Jennifer Graber's interview and her views on the prisons during the Antebellum era and how she compared the inmates of the North to the slave plantation in the South. I never was aware of how much prisons had impacted the people during this period of time. This made me think about the differences of treatment between black slaves and white inmates. Slavery predominately differed from inmates in prisons. This brings me to recall the days where William Byrd treated his slaves. He whipped them and punished them for minor things. However, there wasn't much detail on how inmates were treated. Perhaps black slaves were the only one who that they were the only ones who were going through such agony. Yet, they were not informed about the way some "white slaves" were treated. Both ways of treating people, in my view, are inhumane but that goes to show how we were like back in the early centuries.

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  24. Having read this post, I can say that I am interested in expanding upon some of the sources you could use to integrate prisons into the survey. In mentioning the dark and undesired perspective of prisions you had mentioned using a source of "Horace Lane's Five Year's In State's Prison" to show the depression that prison prompted. Perhaps to expand the reader's idea of what prisons were like back then, you might consder using a document such as "Reformer Dorothea Dix Depicts the Horrible Conditions Endured by the Mentally Ill, 1843" in Major Problems. This document talks about the horrid treatment of those that were placed in mentally ill hospitals, jails, and almshouses. While these are not quite prisions, they do show however how people of the time were treated when placed in similar cirumstances that prisons provide: forced confinement, surveillance, and at times chained and caged. Using a document like this, I believe, would give readers more of a depth of understanding of how prisons at time were run and opperated.

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