Early US Prison History Beyond Rothman: Revisiting The Discovery of the Asylum

Posted: 9 Nov 2019

See all articles by Ashley T. Rubin

Ashley T. Rubin

University of Toronto at Mississauga

Date Written: October 2019


David J. Rothman's , one of the first major works to critically interrogate the beginning of America's extensive reliance on institutionalization, effectively launched the contemporary field of prison history. Rothman traced the first modern prisons’ (1820s–1850s) roots to the post-Revolution social turmoil and reformers’ desire for perfectly ordered spaces. In the nearly 50 years since his pioneering work, several generations of historians, inspired by Rothman, have amassed a wealth of information about the early prisons, much of it correcting inaccuracies and blind spots in his account. This review examines the knowledge about the rise of the prison, focusing on this post-Rothman work. In particular, this review discusses this newer work organized into three categories: the claim that prisons were an invention of Jacksonian America, reformers’ other motivations for creating and supporting prisons, and the frequently gendered and racialized experiences of prisoners. The review closes by reflecting on the importance of prison history in the contemporary context and suggesting areas for future research.

Suggested Citation

Rubin, Ashley T., Early US Prison History Beyond Rothman: Revisiting The Discovery of the Asylum (October 2019). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 15, pp. 137-154, 2019, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3472511 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-101518-042808

Ashley T. Rubin (Contact Author)

University of Toronto at Mississauga ( email )

3359 Mississauga Rd N.
3205 William Davis Building
Mississauga, Ontario L5L 1C6

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