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- Specters of freedom : forced labor, social struggle, and the Louisiana State Penitentiary system, 1835-1935
- Hermann, Christina Pruett
- Electronic Theses & Dissertations
This dissertation examines the history of the Louisiana State Penitentiary from its founding in 1835 to 1935. Its purpose is to reveal the deep historical forces underlying the state’s present-day distinction for incarceration with rates twice the U.S. national average. In doing so, it contributes to the history of punishment, the history of race and slavery, labor history, Southern history, and histories of the state. It adopts an Atlantic perspective and a longue durein order to preserve...
Show moreThis dissertation examines the history of the Louisiana State Penitentiary from its founding in 1835 to 1935. Its purpose is to reveal the deep historical forces underlying the state’s present-day distinction for incarceration with rates twice the U.S. national average. In doing so, it contributes to the history of punishment, the history of race and slavery, labor history, Southern history, and histories of the state. It adopts an Atlantic perspective and a longue durein order to preserve the singularity of the penitentiary’s development without isolating the institution from its larger transnational context. This investigation challenges the conventional wisdom that all southern penitentiaries were the preserve of white men and repudiates the use of regional exceptionalism or “backwardness” to explain either the presence or absence of penal reform. It draws on official reports, government documents, newspapers, publications by penal reformers and labor organizations, prisoner narratives, and the Louisiana State Penitentiary Prisoner Database (LSPPD), my own database created from information drawn from the records of nearly 10,000 inmates. Quantitative analysis combined with qualitative sources offer unique insight into life and labor inside the penitentiary. This study demonstrates that convict servitude was a specific species of forced labor, an institution that was historically and structurally distinct from chattel slavery, yet, coexistent with other forms of forced labor in the Atlantic system. My vantage problematizes the literal and figurative use of slavery as a term to depict penal labor and confinement in the penitentiary system during its first one hundred years. I argue that the state of Louisiana, an early leader in the nineteenth century penitentiary movement, established a rationalized, “modern,” and state-of-the-art penitentiary by 1835. It instituted a distinctive system of forced labor, which generated a nascent prison industrial complex and supported the slave system in the name of humanitarian reform and civilizational progress. This enduring system powered the Confederacy and Union forces. It survived the Civil War to prop up the New South by providing a cheap captive labor force, which advanced state-building, planter power, and infrastructural development. Yet, the institution was not a functional equivalent to the institution of slavery. A constituent part of the Mississippi Delta’s “alluvial empire,” Louisiana’s penitentiary system was an agent in the making of Jim Crow by 1901 and acted to more closely link associations of blackness and criminality. Penitentiary enterprise and the state’s convict population continued to expand and consolidate under ‘progressive,’ scientific management during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The shift from convict leasing to direct state management of the penitentiary in 1901 led to an even more entrenched, rationalized, and extensive prison industrial complex and system of forced labor but one that was all the more vulnerable to its own contradictions. This specter of freedom, institutionalized in the penitentiary system, carried within itself a hidden history of resistance, one that signified the depth of working people’s enduring struggle to live and labor on their own terms.