Good Intentions Gone Bad

In a compelling new study, historian Jennifer Graber investigates Protestantism's involvement in America's penal system in the first half of the 19th century. Her sobering conclusion is that the well-meaning Christians who were involved in prison reform contributed to the creation of a penal culture that "not only allowed but actually demanded" corporal punishment and inmates' suffering.

Graber argues that many Protestant prison activists, including the nation's first prison chaplains, believed that prison should aim to reform prisoners, not simply punish them. But there wasn't agreement about how to achieve prisoner reformation. Quaker Thomas Eddy, who ran New York's Newgate prison from 1797 to 1804, tried to offer inmates, in Graber's phrase, "a completely positive experience." He forbade corporal punishment, and provided prisoners with healthy meals, a clean environment, and "wholesome activities." Even solitary confinement, which was meted out only to Newgate's most obstinate inmates, was, in Eddy's eyes, not so much a punishment as an opportunity for transformation: In the silence of solitary, prisoners would finally be able to hear the Inner Light to which, Quakers believed, all people had access. In other words, Quakerism's generous theological anthropology underwrote a penal practice that many 21st century human rights activists (including the American Friends Service Committee) classify as torture.

Compared with some antebellum Protestant prison activists, Eddy was on the side of angels. Other Protestants -- though still committed to the idea that prison should be reformatory, not only punitive -- crafted what Graber calls a "theology of redemptive suffering." Drawing on Isaiah 48:10, Protestants such as Newgate chaplain John Stanford insisted that the prison should be a "furnace of affliction" that, through "state-imposed physical and psychological pain," would bring about the redemption of prisoners. Many Protestants, Graber shows, either tacitly approved of or actively embraced corporal punishment (which became ever more central to prison discipline during the antebellum era). While Protestant prison workers "did not intend ... to support inmate torture," their theology of redemptive suffering provided torture with a religious rationale.

It is this complicity with physical violence that, in Graber's account, most forcefully illustrates Protestant collusion with the penal system. Her argument could be extended to a concomitant development in American prisons: the rise of contractual penal servitude; that is, the arrangement whereby private companies hired dirt-cheap prison labor from the state, and turned a tidy profit. This practice was written into the Constitution as the one stated exception to the 13th Amendment prohibition of involuntary servitude. (The definitive account of American penal servitude is found in Rebecca M. McLennan's The Crisis of Imprisonment.) Protestant prison activists who believed labor to be crucial to prisoner rehabilitation were thus implicated not only in physical brutality, but also in the rise of industrial capitalism and the perpetuation of involuntary servitude in a nation ostensibly devoted to freedom.

Graber argues that just as Protestants shaped prisons, prisons in turn shaped Protestantism. In order to secure influence in the prisons, Christians were willing to set aside some of their denominational specificity. The Christianity that state agents allowed in prisons would not, in the end, be characterized by the salty particularities of, say, Quakerism or Methodism. It would instead be a generic faith in which "the redeemed life [consisted of] common morality and hard work." Protestantism itself was thus reforged in the fires of the furnace of affliction.

The Furnace of Affliction is written primarily for a scholarly audience, but it tells a story that all Christians involved in prison work should consider. It is one thing to look back to the 1820s and see how church people lent the respectability of religion to state-sponsored violence. It is harder, but perhaps more urgent, to ask about our own complicity in the American penal system. The Furnace of Affliction is not just an important work of religious and penal history; it may also be a mirror that allows non-incarcerated Christians working in prisons today to notice that our efforts to follow Jesus to jail (and to seek justice for some of America's most marginalized citizens) may, perversely, abet a coercive and brutal institution.

Lauren F. Winner teaches at Duke Divinity School and, through Durham's Project TURN, the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Good Intentions Gone Bad"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines