February 25, 2011
WOOSTER, Ohio — Protestant leaders in the early republic saw the nation’s prisons as a place to rehabilitate and reform inmates, but they struggled with opposition from political leaders who had different priorities and inmates who resisted evangelization. Jennifer Graber, author of The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, suggests that it might be worth revisiting that original vision in order to address contemporary prison problems.
“We’ve never been completely clear about the purpose of our prison system,” says Graber, assistant professor of religious studies at The College of Wooster. “People argued about reformation or retribution. The book provides a historical context (from the 1790s to the 1850s) for this quandary, and traces the efforts of those who wanted to provide a different model from the prison system in Europe, which was often brutal and tyrannical.”
The religious leaders wanted to establish a system that fit into their ideas about the new nation’s democracy and Christianity, according to Graber. “They tried to create partnerships with the government,” she says, “but there were conflicts (not the least of which was the separation of church and state). What I attempted to show in the book was that, at times, religious leaders shaped the system, but, at other times, government leaders had their way, so things went both ways.”
Graber studied two rival prison systems — one in Philadelphia and the other in New York (after which Ohio’s Mansfield Reformatory was modeled). She pored over legislative documents, sermons, letters, articles, and other artifacts, but the most difficult aspect of her research was finding personal reflections of the inmates. “It was hard to gather evidence of what the prisoners themselves thought,” she says. “I was only able to find about five prisoners who had documented their experiences through self-published memoirs.”
One of the more disturbing aspects of Graber’s research was the discovery that many prisons lumped inmates together without regard to the severity of their crimes. “In many cases, minor offenders were mixed in with major offenders,” she says. “So someone guilty of a petty theft might be housed with someone convicted of murder. Everyone was treated as a serious criminal. This intermingling led to an increasingly severe system.”
Graber notes the irony in the nation’s struggle with its prison system. “We wanted an alternative that was more humane, but we have gotten away from that,” she says. She also emphasizes the noteworthy efforts of the religious reformers, who dedicated their lives to pushing for a more benevolent system — one that still has merit today. In addition, she offers her assessment of the impact of government interaction. “The reformers made concessions,” she says, “based in large part on the public and political outcry for retribution.”
Two hundred years later, many of the problems persist in the nation’s prisons, so Graber suggests that we take another look at the vision of our early leaders. “Most prisons are punitive and not rehabilitative,” she says. “We need to fundamentally rethink the entire system and consider what a rehabilitative program might look like. It might be something other than incarceration, at least for some offenders.”
Colleagues praised Graber’s research, which is among the first to look at the role of religion in the fledgling nation’s prison system. "Jennifer Graber's provocative, important, and thoughtful book illuminates the history of the intersection of religious beliefs and practices with the U.S. penitentiary,” said UCLA’s Michael Meranze. “Her work will become the leading account of that troubled relationship."
Yale’s Harry Stout said that Graber has given “the most sophisticated and comprehensive history of prisons and religion in early America that has ever been written,” adding that the book should be “required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the painful history of prisons and incarceration in the early republic."
The Furnace of Affliction is available at The College of Wooster’s Florence O. Wilson Bookstore in Lowy Center (1189 Beall Ave.) as well as Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, Ohio 44691. (330) 263-2000
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