There are two million Americans behind bars. The United States holds more prisoners than any other country in the world, and government spending on prisons is rising much faster than spending on schools. How did it come to this? How did the land of the free become the land of the unfree? This course tries to understand how America became the world’s jailor by examining the history of captivity in America from 1600 to the Civil War. We’ll look at how Puritans punished evil-doers, how patriots dealt with British prisoners of war during the Revolution, and how and why social reformers created the first American prisons in the years after American independence. This course also examines the origins of mass incarceration in America from the perspective of those incarcerated.

Students in this course will be challenged to enlarge their definitions of captivity and incarceration by comparing early American prison life to other carceral environments like the mental asylum, the poor house, and the slave plantation. We will look at the various justifications Americans have used to lock up their fellow citizens and examine what assumptions they made about the causes of crime and criminality, the power of reading and education, the function of capital punishment, and the power of prisons to punish, reform or even rehabilitate their inmates. Throughout the course, we’ll use a variety of first-hand accounts written by those who experienced life behind bars as well as current writing on the subject to explore the relationship between liberty and captivity in America. Finally, we’ll address the consequences of detaining so many of our citizens in the correctional system.

This course may also incorporates a class visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, an historic and highly significant former prison in the center of Philadelphia. Students will be evaluated based on their contributions to class discussion and by their performance in several short assignments.