Retribution v. Reform in American Justice

What inspired you to write it? What sparked your interest (person, event, book)?

Two things. First, I grew up in a religious tradition actively engaged in prison visitation. When I was 10, I accompanied my mother and my Sunday School class to the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City. I had a pen pal who was incarcerated there. I sent him letters and sticks of gum. I visited him in prison several times. I thought all Christians did that sort of thing. Finding out that I was wrong about that, including the fact that there were Christians who supported capital punishment [see related blog post: “Does Religion Justify the Murder of Troy Davis?” —ed.], prompted all sorts of questions for me.

Second, the historic jail in downtown Pittsburgh. On a tour of the facility, I was told that the jail was modeled on earlier Pennsylvania penal institutions and that Quakers had a strong influence on their development. That seemed odd to me. Either the tour guide was wrong about the Quakers starting an institution that was eventually shut down by the federal government for its mistreatment of inmates. Or something had happened to this institution that the Quakers hadn’t anticipated. I started to investigate if historians had answered this question. No work offered satisfactory answers. So I decided to do it.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

I want readers to know two things: that a reformative rather retributive impulse toward inmates has dominated American history and that proponents of reformative institutions have been consistently undone by their often-unrecognized commitments to suffering and pain as reformative experiences.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Yes. A focused analysis of inmate voices. My argument centers on Protestant reformers and their engagements with the prison and the public sphere. While I was able to use some inmate narratives in creating a picture of the antebellum prisons, their voices were not central to my project. It’s too bad not only because the narratives are fascinating, but also because several of the narratives I found have not been discussed before in scholarship. I ended up writing a separate article about them, but regret that I couldn’t find a way to feature them more prominently in the book.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

There are a couple issues I had to tackle head-on. Since the 1970s, Americans have witnessed the increasingly retributive spirit of this country’s prisons. It was imperative to show that while there have always been debates about reformation and retribution, the current environment is an historical anomaly.

For people who had any knowledge of prison history, I wanted to deal with some false notions about Quakers and Calvinists. Some scholars have posited accounts of the early prisons in which kind-hearted Quakers were just lovely to prisoners while bloodthirsty Calvinists wanted inmates to suffer deeply for their crimes. This simply is not the case.

Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and other interested religious reformers shared in a fairly unified approach to prisons and prisoners. They wanted reformative prisons. They wanted inmates to be led through a series of experiences that prompted their redemption. They all disavowed torture and abuse. Really, their only disagreements were about corporal punishment, namely whipping. Some Protestant reformers affirmed the limited use of whipping. But even Quakers who disavowed whipping found other ways to enact discipline on the body, such as gagging.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Generally speaking, I wanted historians of American religion, historians of prisons, and historians of the early republic and antebellum periods to read it. But I thought it might interest folks working on urban history, immigration, print culture, and religion and politics. In my heart of hearts, I also want lay readers. I hope the folks at the Pennsylvania Prison Society or Prison Fellowship to read it. I want prison chaplains and guards to read it. I want anyone who—somehow—still resists arguments about the systemic nature of poverty to read it. And let’s just say it: [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder should read it.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I think this book can go a long way to inform people about the tensions between democracy and social control in American history. And it can teach people a lot about how evangelical Protestant traditions have changed over time, including the ways they have reshaped strategies to engage the political realm. I’m afraid there are no pleasurable parts of this book. In fact, it’s really grim. People with relatively good intentions did bad things. But even worse, inmates are subject to dreadful and debasing treatment. Reading about their experiences can be rough going.

This book might piss some people off. Readers with a strong commitment to an overly simple narrative of evangelical political engagement won’t like the book. Readers with nostalgia for the early republic or antebellum periods won’t like my evocation of the era. Readers who think all Quakers are as nice as the guy on the oats box have another thing coming. If someone is pissed about this book, it will be because the history of criminal punishment is much more complicated than they would like it to be.

What alternative title would you give the book?

I’ve always been bad at titles. In desperation, I made a friend provide the title for my dissertation. When I thought about “The Furnace of Affliction,” I knew that was the only good title I would ever come up with. I have joked with friends that I would sell more books if I had used “The Furnace of Affection” instead.

How do you feel about the cover?

Love it. For a while, I wondered if UNC Press would dig up an old image of a flaming industrial furnace. That might have been exciting, but it actually would not have been true to the reformers’ ideas about what the “furnace of affliction” should be. The image on the cover comes from a prison tract published just before the Civil War. I like the minister with his top hat and pointing figure. I love that the inmate has his arms crossed and a dour face. The image captures so many of the interactions I read about: ministers and reformers sharing what they believed to be true with prisoners who were either uninterested or unconvinced.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Of all the books in the world, the answer is [David Foster Wallace’s novel] Infinite Jest. But I bet you’re asking about books in my field. Among those, I wish I had written The Madonna of 115th Street (by Robert Orsi) or Rebecca’s Revival (by Jon Sensbach). Orsi’s book is classic because it focused on everyday religious experiences of Italian immigrants, a cluster of activities that many outsider observers considered to be “bad religion.” Orsi did, and still does, find ways to battle that idea. Sensbach uses the story of a formerly enslaved Moravian to give readers a new understanding of how Protestantism came to North America. It’s beautiful. It’s a revolution. I love both of these books—even as my own book is so different from them—because of their trained focus on the details within individual lives.

What’s your next book?

My new project is on religion, violence, and the frontier. It’s called “Spiritual Battlefields: A Religious History of the Indian Wars, 1860-1890.” I have only two chapters written. It’s going to take forever. But it’s another one of those dark stories in American history that hasn’t been told but needs to be.

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