Watch the replay of this event held on March 23, 2022

Prisons were once considered a sign of progress, a victory for public health that was more humane than disease-ridden, overcrowded jails and the harsh physical punishments meted out on the town green. Yet today, prisons face a legitimacy crisis, and are considered by many policymakers and reformers as bloated, inhumane institutions. Even as scholarly work suggests that they are ineffective at making us safer, society has come to take the need for prisons and mass incarceration for granted. How did we get here? How have our attitudes toward prison, which some scholars date to around the time of the American Revolution, changed over time? Are prisons intended to punish, to rehabilitate, or both? What’s reasonable to ask of prisons and do they ever work as intended? How is incarceration experienced by those who are imprisoned? 

Watch this discussion with a formerly incarcerated writer and a sociologist to learn how the history of prisons can inform our understanding of mass incarceration today.


Photo of Ashley Rubin

Ashley Rubin, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Ashley Rubin researches the intersections of criminology, history, sociology, and sociolegal studies and focuses on the dynamics of penal change throughout US history. She seeks to understand why societies punish in different ways at different times and places in history and how penal change is possible — what causes a society to adopt new penal practices or abandon old ones. Rubin is the author of two books, including The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of Americas Modern Penal System, 1829-1913, and she is currently writing a book on the history of American prisons. 

Photo of Morgan Godvin

Morgan Godvin, JSTOR Daily

Morgan Godvin is an engagement editor with JSTOR Daily, assigned to the American Prison Newspapers collection. This primary source archive contains centuries’ worth of digitized newspapers produced by and for incarcerated people. Godvin is formerly incarcerated and now dedicates herself to the intersection of journalism, history and mass incarceration. She is a 2022 Bard Prison Initiative Public Health Fellow and recent graduate of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health.


Photo of Emily Underwood

Emily Underwood, Science Content Producer, Virtual Events, Knowable Magazine

Emily has been covering science for over a decade, including as a staff neuroscience reporter for Science. She has a bachelor’s degree in Science and Technology Studies from Brown University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. In 2016-17, Emily was a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism, and her reporting has won national awards, including a 2018 National Academies Keck Futures Initiatives Communication Award for magazine writing.


This event is part of an ongoing series of live events and science journalism from Knowable Magazine and Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

This event is co-produced with JSTOR Daily, an online publication that contextualizes current events with scholarship. Drawing on the richness of JSTOR’s digital library of academic journals, books, images, primary sources, research reports and other material, JSTOR Daily stories provide background — historical, scientific, literary, political and otherwise — for understanding our world. 


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Emily Underwood: “I’m Emily Underwood, and I’m the new science content producer for live events for Knowable Magazine from Annual Reviews. Today, we are going to be talking about the history of prisons. These institutions are so entrenched in our justice system that it’s easy to assume they’ve been around forever, but prisons are actually a relatively recent invention. Many scholars argue they were invented around the time of the American Revolution.

“Today, we’ll talk about how the US came to have the largest system of mass incarceration in the world, holding almost 25 percent of the world’s prison and jail population, even though we have about 5 percent of the world’s population. We’ll ask why US mass incarceration has skyrocketed since the 1970s, even though there’s compelling evidence that putting more people in prison doesn’t make our communities safer. And we’ll learn about the experience of being in prison from someone who was incarcerated after her friend died of a heroin overdose.

“A few housekeeping items: We’ll be recording this and sharing it for free. You can replay it after it’s over and share it with others. If at any point you find you can’t hear the audio, please refresh your browser. Put your questions in the question box at the bottom of the screen after 40 minutes. Our editors will select from the ones you post. I’d like to invite you to our next event on April 20. We’ll be talking about why rich countries have received so many more Covid vaccines than low- and middle-income countries, and what can be done to bridge that gap.

“Thank you again so much for joining us, and thanks also to our event partner, JSTOR Daily, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for their support of Knowable Magazine. And of course, special thanks to our guests, Morgan Godvin and Dr. Ashley Rubin, for joining us today. Without further ado, I’d like to welcome today’s speakers.

“Joining us from JSTOR Daily is Morgan Godvin, an engagement editor assigned to the American Prison Newspapers collection. Morgan developed an addiction to opioids in her 20s and was incarcerated for four years on a federal delivery charge, which she’ll explain to us in a moment. A writer, an activist, she is a 2022 Bard Prison Initiative Public Health Fellow, and a recent graduate of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health.

“We’ll also hear from Dr. Ashley Rubin, a sociologist at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She studies why societies punish people in different ways at different times and places and how penal systems can change. Ashley focuses on the early history of prisons in the US, and is the author of two books, including ‘The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America’s Modern Penal System.’ She is working on a new book now about the history of American prisons.

“Welcome, both of you, and thank you for joining us. I’d like to start with Ashley. On a personal level, Ashley, what made you want to study prisons?”

Ashley Rubin: “It really goes back to a college class I had on the history of crime and punishment. I was a child of the ’90s. Prisons were taking off. We were starting mass incarceration in a really visible way. I just took prisons for granted as a kid. And then here I take my college class and realize, ‘Oh, prisons are actually kind of new in human history.’ We’ve had them since the beginning of the United States, but that was a really big deal. Getting that process of starting to punish with incarceration is this really fascinating process, and so I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s just that simple.”

Emily Underwood: “Thank you so much. Let’s turn to Morgan. Morgan, can you tell us about what led to your incarceration and then how did being in prison lead to your current role at JSTOR, writing about and sharing the American Prison Newspapers collection?”

Morgan Godvin: “It’s still so wild to be here in this job, because I’m a high school dropout. My story is semi-tragic, but all too common. I was cast into poverty in my teens, ended up dropping out of high school, had to go back and get my high school diploma. Tried to join the Air Force to escape poverty, ended up getting injured, back home, and addicted to heroin. Then I lived under the war on drugs for many years. Started going to jail, and I eventually went to prison under a really tragic circumstance. I was the one who provided the gram off of which my best friend overdosed and died. The charge is called drug delivery resulting in death.

“So there I am in prison. I’ve never been told that I’m a writer. I’ve taken one college writing class when I was addicted on ... I was addicted to heroin, I got a B. I remember that. I was very impressed because I got a B. And all of a sudden, I realized that I have power in my words, because the women around me, they were struggling with their court documents, with their medical requests, and I started helping, helping people write. And then once I got to prison, I saw horrific conditions, and I was able to not only reclaim part of my identity that had been stripped away from me through incarceration, but also get recourse for the injustices, I would think.

“I’m there writing Senator Wyden, Senator Merkley, and they’re writing me back. I was like, ‘That’s so weird.’ And then the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums helped me get published, and I was published in the Marshall Project and Vice while I was still incarcerated. And that just changed the trajectory of my life. ‘Wow, can I do this?’ All I had ever known was addiction and jail, and there I was getting published.

“And so I got out and I just kept writing and I just kept writing. And right around the time I was graduating with my bachelor’s, I saw this job posting. Sorry, I have an echo. I’m trying to keep the mic off my ear. I’m going to speak up. I saw this job posting and it required expertise with prison, journalism and academia. I guess that’s pretty unique because I got the job. Then I just started reading these archival prison newspapers spanning across three centuries, and then all these peer-reviewed articles to boot.

“I finally understood what happened to me. The convergence of political factors that occurred for me to go to prison, the experiences that I had in prison, I was able to contextualize it all. I just love my job. Now, I bring not only this archival and academic lens, but also my lived experience.”

Emily Underwood: “We’re so thrilled to have you both here. I’d like to hear a little bit about the resources and the archives that you both work with. Ashley, I know your research focuses on the early history of prisons. The newspaper archives that Morgan works in begin a bit later, spanning from 1800 all the way to the present. I wanted to ask, to start out, to ask about an example of an archival document that really excited you when you first found it. So, something that really sent shivers down your spine. Ashley, can you please go first? Ashley, you’re muted.”

Ashley Rubin: “Thank you. Sorry about that. Honestly, any document that’s about 200 years old, or even 100 years old for that matter, just gets me every time, because it’s like here’s this document that’s just super old. Just as an example, my first trip to the archives was in Philadelphia, the American Philosophical Society. I was reading this handwritten testimony, recorded testimony during an investigation into misconduct at the local prison there. I was reading this and I’m thinking about this secretary that’s furiously scribbling down, because they’re essentially transcribing the testimony that’s taking place during this investigation. I’m just imagining like what this would have been like.

“Here’s this secretary scribbling it down. The prison officials are reacting to the testimony. The legislators are there, because it’s a legislative investigation. They’re reacting, just like these thoughts going through their mind. It’s so stimulating to think about all those things.

“Or another example that’s also just amazing for me is that the same archive I was reading these letters that were passed between two incarcerated people, a man and a woman. A 17-year-old woman and a 21-year-old man. The woman was white, the man was black, and they were in love and they were having this relationship in prison, which on so many levels, is kind of mind-blowing. Because first of all, they’re writing letters to each other, which means they’re both literate, which for a white woman and a Black man at the time — this is around the time of the Civil War, so 1860s — that was actually pretty rare. That’s the first thing.

“But secondly, just having any sort of communication between each other was also prohibited by the prison. Somehow, they’re smuggling these letters to each other and then these letters survived. That’s also just how many layers they had to go through for me to then, 150 years later, to be reading through these letters that survived and they’re still there. They didn’t get destroyed or thrown away or something. Just all of those things just really, really get to me.”

Emily Underwood: “Thanks so much. Morgan, can you tell us something, an example from the prison newspaper collection that you found really interesting?

Morgan Godvin: “The example that Ashley shared is so cool, I just want to say. Our archive mostly starts right around the turn of the 20th century, so it’s a little bit more recent. But what’s so jarring is how many times I read an essay and I think, ‘This could be written today.’ So little has changed.

“It’s Second Chance Month this month. And I found an essay from 1974 where this incarcerated man is complaining or saying, ‘How do you expect us to not return to prison when you restrict our economic opportunities?’ And that is still happening. We are still having this exact same conversation. Recidivism is really high, the collateral consequences of imprisonment in a felony conviction. That happens at least once a day when I’m digging around in the archives.

“’Prison should be there to rehabilitate, not punish.’ ‘The importance of education.’ This is an essay written in 1909, Wyoming. Just how it can be a little bit circular. Sometimes the conversation is what’s so powerful when I’m deep in the bowels of the archive.”

Emily Underwood: “I’m excited to talk about everything we have to learn from these firsthand accounts. But first, let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s talk about the origin of prisons. The problem of how to deal with people who don’t follow society’s rules is as old as human culture, really. But prisons and mass incarceration are quite new, historically speaking. Prisons, as scholars define them, including Ashley yourself, and mass incarceration itself is really ... We’ve only really had prisons for around 250 years. So, let’s talk about how this modern invention differs from jail, just to get some basic definitions straight and how jail has been around much longer. Ashley, can we start with you?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. Thank you. It’s kind of confusing because the word ‘prison’ has been around for forever. ‘Jails’ and ‘prisons’ were kind of used interchangeably, rhetorically — at the rhetorical level, so at the level of words. You get accounts in the Bible, for example, referring to ‘prison’ and things like that. But from a contemporary standpoint, we wouldn’t recognize those facilities as prisons. We would see them as jails.

“The difference between prisons and jails kind of comes down to three factors. Prisons are places where we punish people who have been convicted of serious crime, or things we think are serious crime at the time, by long-term confinement. Breaking down each of those, we can kind of understand the difference between prisons and jail.

“So, the purpose. Prisons are places of punishment. Punishment can happen in a lot of different ways, but the point is punishment for a crime, for a lot of different reasons that I think we’ll get into later. That’s the first thing. Whereas jails aren’t specifically places of punishment. That might be one of the things that happens there, but it’s not the kind of only thing.

“Jails, especially historically, they were basically holding tanks. You’d have people there awaiting trial. You would have people who were awaiting their punishment. You would have people who had already been punished, but were still ... They owed fees and fines, and so they’re still being incarcerated. But it wasn’t just people who were in the criminal justice system as we might think of it. It was also debtors, and vagrants, and basically people that, in one way or another, were kind of on the margins of society. This might include orphans. It might include older people. It might include people with disabilities. Just a whole range of people and their family members. So, including the debtor’s family members and things like that, so a huge mix of people.

“The purpose of the jail was of a much bigger variety. And then consequently, the population was much bigger. Whereas prisons are just for people who are convicted of typically serious crimes, typically felonies. Then finally, the duration. Prisons are supposed to be places of long-term confinement. Usually, by ‘long-term,’ we mean minimum of one to two years. Whereas jails are usually less than a year or in some jurisdictions, less than two years. Those are the big differences.

“Jails are something that we’ve had forever. They’ve usually been holding tanks that have a diverse population of people who are there for a lot of different reasons. Typically intentionally for short periods of time. Whereas prisons are places of punishment only for people who’ve been convicted of serious crimes for these long periods.

“Now, this is the legal distinction and this distinction is one that emerged relatively late in human history, around the time of the American Revolution, as you said, but it’s the legal distinction. In practice, a lot of this stuff isn’t necessarily the case. There are a lot of variations. For example, the way in which jails aren’t supposed to be a form of punishment, for example, for people awaiting trial, isn’t necessarily how it’s experienced. The experience of prison and jail can be very different from what the legal text says it’s supposed to be.”

Emily Underwood: “Great. Thank you. Morgan, is there anything you want to add or clear up about the difference between prison and jail? Either in the past or ...

Morgan Godvin: “Yeah, just in present day, most people held in jail are not convicted. In this country, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Our system of cash bail is incredibly unique. Ashley, correct me if I’m wrong, but that you need to pay to get out of jail before your trial. We have this incredibly bloated system of cash-bail detention in the United States. That’s just a really important distinction that a large percentage of our incarcerated people are not actually convicted of a crime.”

Emily Underwood: “Ashley, do you want to add anything to that? Or should we move on to how we got to prisons in the first place?”

Ashley Rubin: “No, that was great.”

Emily Underwood: “Great. Well, let’s talk about this. Ashley, you and other scholars have argued that we didn’t really have prisons until the start of the American Revolution. I’m curious to know, what was going on at that time and what happened then?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. The short answer is a lot of things were changing in Western societies at the time. Everything from religions were changing. And by religions, I really mean, especially Christian religions. There are a lot of different Protestant types of religions at the time, and their core beliefs were changing as we’re getting kind of new offshoots of those. Political ideas are changing. Economic ideas are changing. The economy itself is changing. Just a lot of things are changing all at once, and those things kind of ultimately lead to a lot of developments, including the American Revolution, but also to the rise of prisons as we know them today. So, big changes in society.

“And then in terms of how that actually leads to the first prisons, there are basically two big developments taking place, kind of inspired by this larger context of rapid change, intellectual change and so on. One is the jail reform movement. There’s this kind of growing dissatisfaction with the jail facilities that we had. They were getting increasingly overcrowded. They were notoriously filthy. They were corrupt. Jails were run by individual jailers who basically had full control over the jail population, and they would usually get ... They were paid not by the state or by the colony, but rather by the fees and fines of the people who were incarcerated there. They’d even buy their food and especially drink alcohol from the jailer. That was something that could be abused a lot, but also the exposure of alcohol in these jails, a lot of reformers didn’t like that.

“These are also places of disease. That was a really big concern at the time, because there are some cases of some massive disease outbreaks that spread beyond the jail, because jails are very porous institutions. People can kind of spread it out into the community. There’s just a lot of factors going on that made people kind of disgusted with jails, and so they wanted to reform the jails.

“That’s one thing that’s happening, kind of got started a little bit before the American Revolution, but really takes off after the American Revolution. Not just in what would be the United States, but also in England and some other countries, but England is most salient for the United States.

“Then the other big factor is this move against capital and corporal punishment. Our criminal justice system at the time revolves around capital and corporal punishments. These are public, especially painful punishments. Corporal punishments basically include things like whipping, branding or spending time in the pillory or the stocks, which are these wooden devices that hold you in place while the town members could kind of come over and cheer you, make fun of you, throw rotten fruit and vegetables at you.

“It could be an unnerving experience. It could be pretty bad, and sometimes even dangerous for these people. These punishments, including capital punishment as well, are increasingly seen as not befitting a humane society. And especially after the American Revolution, we really wanted to be considered a humanitarian society, and we differentiated ourselves from England, from especially the monarchy. ‘We’re this new republic. We have to be humanitarian. These aren’t befitting a humanitarian republic.’

“We were also concerned that these punishments weren’t working in the sense of deterring people. They weren’t scaring people away from committing crime. That was another concern. Just kind of across the board, there was massive dissatisfaction with capital and corporal punishments. Through a lot of more complicated processes I won’t go into, these two movements kind of merged and give us basically the prison movement. We start reforming the old jails and turning them into what we would see as prisons today.

“This then takes place in kind of two waves. The first one starts right after the American Revolution ends. The first prison is in 1785 in Massachusetts. We get another one and then a really important one in Philadelphia, that’s eventually called Walnut Street Prison. That becomes the model for the country. That’s the first wave of prison development that goes until about the 1820s.

“At the tail end of that wave, there’s a new wave of prison development, because the first prisons fail and they have to be replaced, according to people at the time. So, we get the second wave of prisons, and those look a lot more like the ones that we see today. That wave lasts from about the late 1810s to about the Civil War in early 1860s. So, that’s kind of the somewhat short answer of how we got prisons.”

Emily Underwood: “Thank you. Pretty quickly, as I understand the idea and the reality are clearly very different. Prisons are controversial from the beginning. Can you talk about what some of the concerns were at first? I’d like to hear from both of you about how the rationale for why we created prisons has changed over time and how the pendulum has swung between this belief that they can be tools of rehabilitation and the use of prisons as punishment. Morgan, do you want to speak to the question of some of the concerns that start cropping up immediately?”

Morgan Godvin: “Yeah. Really early, mid-19th century, I start seeing accounts of people accusing prisons of places ... Sorry, this echo is getting me. Where peers corrupt each other. You have these communal living arrangements and it’s the criminogenic effect of incarceration, which we now know is fairly well-documented. It tends to produce more criminal behavior of a broader scope of criminal behavior, because you’re exposed to all everyone else that’s been labeled a criminal at that exact point in time in that place.

“Almost immediately, people are like, ‘Oh, prisons are failing. Prisons are a failed institution.’ I think that’s fascinating. I saw this mid-19th century account of solitary confinement and they say, ‘Oh, but it causes madness.’ In the 1850s, we knew that it caused madness, but then immediately you see the factions of the public debate and they go, ‘Oh, well, it’s not solitary confinement causes madness, it’s because they masturbate so much. It’s the masturbation that causes madness’ — which was the prevailing public health belief at the time.

“So, you immediately just see society sort of devolve into these factions. One side claiming human rights, one side claiming punishment and crime deterrence. The lines get blurred and people switch positions and they claim different arguments. When you really boil it down, we’ve been having the same conversation since right around that time of the 1820s is when it starts to get really vocal, like: Prisons are failed institutions, they’re unhygienic, they cause more crime, introduce criminals to other criminals — and we still hear some of those same things right now, 2022.

Emily Underwood: “That’s so fascinating. Ashley, can you speak to the pendulum swing over time in the rationales behind prison?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. Morgan is exactly right. These things go from the very beginning and they just keep recurring. Basically, prisons started out as these institutions that are supposed to do a lot of different things. Traditionally, we see the purposes of punishment as being fourfold. One is kind of what we might think of as punishment or retribution. Somebody should be punished for doing something wrong. So, we’re going to put them in prison because they just deserve it, morally speaking. That’s retribution.

“The other big one, or another big one, is rehabilitation or sometimes called reformation, or it has different terms that go with it. But basically, this idea that something is wrong with this person that caused them to commit crime, and so we’re going to fix them. Rehabilitation goes under a lot of different guises, depending on what the common sources of knowledge of society are at the time. In the mid-20th century, for example, psychology was really big. A lot of the rehabilitation was we’re going to fix people’s psychology. We’re going to give them bibliotherapy or essentially reading therapy. We’re going to give them psychotherapy and so on.

“That’s one version of that, but we’ve also seen rehabilitation through work. People just need discipline. Criminals are lazy, they thought. So, if we kind of put them to work, they’ll learn the good skills of being a hardworking person. That’s another type of rehabilitation. Sometimes, we recognize that actually there are social factors that led to people committing crime, things like this person doesn’t have an education, and so maybe we should provide an education for them. We do that in prison. Or maybe this person never learned skills. It’s not that they’re lazy, they just never were given useful vocational training for whatever reason. We’re going to give them vocational training and that’s going to help them after prison to avoid crime. That’s rehabilitation.

“Then we also have incapacitation, which is the idea that you basically lock somebody up in a box and they can’t hurt people outside of that box. They can potentially hurt people inside the box, but we don’t care about that. As long as they can’t hurt people outside in the free world, that’s really what we care about.

“And then finally, deterrence. The idea that we’re going to punish people in such a way that’s going to scare not only that person, so that they never want to commit crime again, because they never want to go through that experience again. But it’s also going to scare other people who are just going to hear about that person’s experience or know about the possibility of that punishment and not want to commit crime because they don’t want to have that experience.

“Prison and punishment more generally has basically gone through all of these. What’s really confusing is at any given time, there are always different people who support a lot of these different ideas. Even today, you ask what’s the purpose of the prison? Is it rehabilitation? Is it incapacitation? The laws say one thing and then public opinion says another thing, but even public opinion is divided. So, it depends on whom you ask what purpose of prison is.

“When you try to go through history and kind of say like, ‘Well, what was the purpose of prison at different times?’ You can really only look at what the most popular purpose was or what really got written down or had kind of some sort of difference made in terms of shaking penal policy. Because there are always other people who said, ‘No, it should be retribution instead of rehabilitation.’

“We do kind of see these shifts at that level, at that very visible rhetorical level. But in practice, it’s always a lot more messy, where even in periods when rehabilitation is really popular, you sometimes see other conversations. Or you might see within a prison, for example, custodial staff are much more in favor of incapacitation or the tougher purposes of punishment. Whereas the treatment staff, people who are running the classes or doing the psychotherapy and stuff, might be more in favor of rehabilitation.

“There’s an excellent book on this, by the way, called ‘Breaking the Pendulum’ by Josh Page, Michelle Phelps and Phil Goodman, that talks exactly about this kind of variation over time in prison. Basically, it’s always been in a mess, but you do see these shifts. And I think the most important thing to understand is at the visible level in the 1970s is where we kind of see the public discussion of retribution essentially for the first time since, like really popular, since the late 18th century, I would say.”

Emily Underwood: “Great. It’s a really good segue way to how we got to where we are today with this massive increase in mass incarceration that started in the 1970s and that hugely disproportionately affects communities of color. How did we get here? Morgan, do you want to take a first?”

Morgan Godvin: “Yeah. I want to talk about the war on drugs. Just generally, criminal justice policy wasn’t always seen as hyperpolitical. It was just like, ‘Oh, let the experts handle that.’ But right around the 1970s, they realized how they could win the votes by politicizing crime and public safety. That’s when you get Richard Nixon. The war on drugs really starts under Nixon.

“There’s this famous quote by one of his aides, John Ehrlichman. He says, ‘We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.’ He knows they were lying about the dangerousness of drugs. It doesn’t matter, because it served a political aim.

“We get this very tough-on-crime, hyper-punitive policies, mandatory minimum sentences, and just generally the war on drug and broad bipartisan public support for it. Our prison population blooms, explodes within two decades. And here we are now in mass incarceration. Mass incarceration actually peaked in the early 2000s, but we still by far incarcerate more of our residents than any other country in the world, including authoritarian regimes.”

Emily Underwood: “Great, thank you. Because the writings that you both work with speak so eloquently to the real lived experience of being in prison — Morgan, your writing speaks to that as well — I want to focus on that for a minute. What have you learned, Morgan, from reading the documents and writings of incarcerated people over time? And how does it connect to your own experience?”

Morgan Godvin: “There’s such a breadth of humanity that we have locked behind bars. I feel that there’s such a disconnect between public opinion, what people think prisons do or what prisons look like from the inside out and what they actually look like. That was one of my biggest realizations. I first step foot in federal prison. The correctional officers wear American flags on their uniform and they were screaming and cussing at me, like degrading me, hatefully degrading me. I didn’t have opportunity to earn a single college credit. It was simply human warehousing. And I thought, ‘What are we doing? Because this is super-expensive. The American taxpayers are paying for this.’

“I got this really strong feeling when I was inside. If people could see in, they would cease to exist in their current state because people would see. It’s essentially making people worse, especially women, the vast majority of women are sexual-assault survivors. And then you get mostly male correctional officers screaming and cussing at them and degrading them. Was it any surprise that our recidivism rate is so high?

“That’s why I was so excited to take this job, because my experience was not unique. I have seen 200 years of incarcerated people trying through the pen to get the word out about what’s really going on inside. What does it really feel like to be in prison? What’s happening? And how the system is not geared towards rehabilitation, but is geared towards punishment, and how that does not actually motivate to safer and healthier communities. You just see people having the exact same realizations that I had for 200 years, writing about it, trying to get the emphasis to be on education, rehabilitation, mental health, wellness — and we still struggle. There’s just not the political will to implement it.”

Emily Underwood: “Thanks. I want to talk a little bit about, over history, how the rights that have been historically withheld from incarcerated people. Some of the more important ones that have been withheld and the debate around that. Ashley, do you mind starting?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. Historically, prisoners had no rights. The kind of technical legal term for this is ‘civil death.’ The idea is if you commit a crime and you go to prison, for the duration of your prison sentence, you have no rights, so we can basically do bad things to you. And you can’t go to a court law and say, ‘Stop this from happening.’

“The one thing that you could do to get redressed was called a writ of habeas corpus. So ‘habeas corpus’ is a Latin phrase that literally means ‘show me the body’ or ‘bring me the body,’ which meant here’s an order to the prison authorities. Bring this incarcerated person to the court so we can investigate their case. The basis of these arguments would have to be that you were wrongly incarcerated.

“In practice, these cases might be something like you were sentenced to spend six months in jail, but you were sent to six months at the local penitentiary or the local state prison, but basically the state-level facility. Let’s say the conditions are harsher there than they were in the jail, and so you don’t want to be there and you’re not supposed to be there. But for whatever reason, you ended up there instead of at the jail, which actually happened quite a bit in the early days.

“So there, the court could say yes or no. Is the reason for this person to be here good or not? Or another one might be, you were supposed to be let out a few days ago and you haven’t been let out yet because the prison officials forgot, which is another thing that occasionally happened. You could file a writ of habeas corpus if you needed to get released potentially. All of this basically changes in the 1950s and 1960s. Really, the 1960s.

“For all this time period, there are very few court cases about prisoners’ rights, again, because prisoners didn’t have rights. It was just those habeas corpus claims that they could do to challenge some part of about their confinement and that they’re wrongfully confined. What we call this period is the period of the hands-off doctrine. Literally, courts were kind of saying, ‘We’re not going to touch this case. We’re going to defer to prison authorities. They know what they’re doing, so we’re not going to do anything about that.’

“In the 1950s and 1960s, we start to get a number of court cases where prisoners are challenging the conditions of their confinement. That’s when the courts start kind of getting their hands dirty and starting to intervene and saying, ‘Actually, this is too far.’

“Now, an important point is a lot of these cases actually came out of Southern prisons. One of the reasons for that is a lot of the Southern prisons, well throughout the 20th century, are basically replicating the conditions of slavery. A lot of people say, ‘How is that possible? Because didn’t we abolish slavery?’

“In a lot of ways, we didn’t, but the most salient one for us is in the 13th Amendment when it abolishes slavery, it says except for punishment for crime. That was really important because since the beginning of prisons, labor was a really important component of the prison experiences, historian Rebecca McLennan has written. It was central, and so we didn’t want to get rid of essentially penal servitude. We wanted to keep that going because that was really central to prison life. We were very careful in making that 13th Amendment to have that exception.

“We would continue to have these really intense penal situations where people are essentially —especially after the Civil War in the South — these people would be sentenced to various types of penal labor and eventually to prisons under conditions that were basically like slavery or in some cases worse than slavery. The famous phrase, this is ‘worse than slavery,’ that’s the title of a book by [David] Oshinsky.

“Anyway, we have this situation where people are basically experiencing the conditions of slavery and that goes on for about a hundred years until the courts start intervening in that time. That’s when prisoners start having recognizable rights. I want to emphasize that these aren’t like big interventions — historically, it’s really big because courts just didn’t do this before — but they’re basically saying, ‘OK, but you can’t torture people in prison. That’s kind of an issue.’

“That’s not that revolutionary from our perspective, but from the time, it was actually a really big deal. And then it would expand to other things like there’s certain things you can’t withhold from prisoners. You can’t withhold lawyers’ access to the prisoners or the right to practice religion and things like that. But at the time, it was like this really modest interventions that were historically quite revolutionary.”

Emily Underwood: “OK. We have so much important stuff to talk about, but we are running out of time. So, I just want to end before we turn to questions from our audience with a question about the modern prison reform movement. Can you speak to that, Ashley, and sort of what the history of prison can tell us about current calls for the abolition of prisons, for example? And, actually, Morgan, I want to make sure we get to hear from both of you. Morgan, maybe you go first this time.”

Morgan Godvin: “We know that prison reform movement, it’s just as old as prisons itself. I’m sorry, this echo. In prison abolition, that’s also not new. Some people think it’s new because they’ve heard about it for the first time in the last two years. Definitely not new. There has been a thriving abolitionist culture.

“What I want to emphasize, though, because there seems to be just common misconception about this. There’s a lot of talk about private prisons and there’s a lot of talk about wrongfully convicted people. When I say I focus on prison reform, I am focusing on the conditions of confinement for people in public institutions, which is the vast majority of people and people who are guilty, because human beings deserve rights.

“I just think it’s really strange. There’s no other demographic in the United States where the American people will be like, ‘Yeah, make them hurt,’ other than criminals. But now, there’s a very strong pushback on that towards prison reform. And again, it’s very bipartisan because it actually makes bad economics to lock up so many people at such a huge cost to the state and then impede their economic opportunities in the future. A lot of conservative states have had very successful prison reform. I just really like to emphasize that point because we tend to look at this through a partisan lens and it’s fairly nonpartisan. It’s fairly humanitarian.”

Emily Underwood: “Thanks so much.”

Emily Underwood: “Ashley, all yours.”

Ashley Rubin: “Thanks. I think what Morgan said earlier about the things recurring through history is really important. There’s so much stuff that we’re talking about in a lot of ways that’s not new. That’s really important. I think getting people to kind of look at our history and take that seriously and learn from our mistakes, the fact that the prison has failed repeatedly is a big recurring theme and kind of understanding like why does it keep failing and why do we keep expecting it not to fail. What’s behind our enduring faith in the prison that we can just kind of tweak it, that we can fix it, that we can have a new model of the prison and that’s going to solve our problems, or we just need a different policy and that’s going to solve it. We just don’t learn from our history.

“There’s a lot of recurring stuff, but at the same time, we’re also reaching some unprecedented difficulties. Because we’re in mass incarceration, historically unprecedented and internationally uncommon rates of incarceration, we’re facing a really big battle. There’s a great plot by this sentencing project that shows that if we try to decarcerate at the rate that we’ve done over the last couple of years, and partly because of the pandemic and a little bit before then, our overall national incarceration rate has started to fall a little bit.

“But if we were to keep decarcerating at that rate, it’s going to take almost a hundred years to get back to our prison population in the 1990s, which was already mass incarceration. That was already historically unprecedented, both at the incarceration rate level and our overall prison population level, just unprecedented numbers, like mind-blowing numbers. And it would take us a hundred years to get back to that.

“We have a pretty steep path ahead of us. We have to think radically. And as Morgan said, we can’t just focus on the easy cases. We can’t just focus on the cases where it’s like somebody who shouldn’t be there because they’re wrongfully convicted, or somebody who’s low-risk, or somebody who’s a drug offender or a nonviolent offender, or some other low-risk category. We have to take seriously everybody else who’s in prison, because it’s actually a large group of people. A lot of that I think also just comes down to misconception.

“For example, people are really afraid of letting out people who are convicted of violent offenses in prison, but it also turns out that the offense that you go to prison for is not necessarily … calling it a violent offender or nonviolent offender is really misleading. That’s just one example of a bunch of things where if the public knew more about prisons, we could hopefully do a lot more with changing what we do.

“Morgan said if people could see inside prisons, one thing that we learned from history is prison started out as tourist attractions. You could literally buy tickets to go and visit prisons. You wouldn’t see the prisoners necessarily, but you could at least see what the prison looked like and kind of look into people’s cells and see what confinement looks like. We kind of had this check on prisons from the public as well as from penal reformers who literally had a right of access at the time that we just don’t have today. They’re basically this big black box that a lot of people don’t see through other than through television shows. That’s not the most realistic look into prisons.

Emily Underwood: “Thank you so much. We have some really fascinating audience questions coming in. Thanks to everybody who has been watching. If you’re enjoying this event and you want to join future ones, please be sure to sign up for our newsletter. We will drop the link in the chat. And of course, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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“And let’s go ahead and move to audience questions. I would like to start with a big question that relates to race: What does the history of prisons and the balance of rehabilitation and punishment show us about how incarceration began to be used as a method of holding the US racial apartheid system in place? Does it start to be used deliberately for this purpose of controlling and limiting Black people post-Civil War? Or was it also used pre-Civil War? And does it develop in parallel to the development of the police from slave-catching posses? Ashley, you want to take that one first, and then Morgan?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. Thank you. There are lot of ways to answer this question. A lot of parts of my mind is exploding with all the things I want to say, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Yes, the way in which prisons became what we call race-making institutions, or basically kind of using racial stratification in the way that a lot of people have brought to light more recently, in that people are starting to get really quite concerned about because they’re learning about it, really does start after the American Civil War. That’s not to say that racism wasn’t a major component of prisons from the very beginning. It’s just that racism looked very different in different time periods.

“Prisons, as they started out in the first two waves that I mentioned, they’re really designed for white men. Prisons are supposed to be what we call republican machines. At the time, they’re supposed to make people into good citizens. But who could be a citizen? Who could be a voter? Because we wanted to take kind of criminals who are considered unvirtuous and make them virtuous citizens so they can vote and protect the republic.

“Who’s allowed to vote? For the most part, it’s not women and it’s not Black people. So they are basically reserved for white men for the most part. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t used on women of any race or Black people of any gender, but rather they were designed for that purpose. That kind of rehabilitation model is designed for white men, which means that when Black people and women do go to prison, they’re seen as poor fits for rehabilitation. That’s where really the racism, and also the sexism, comes in.

“For a lot of reasons, Black people at the time were seen as poor subjects for prison discipline, that they shouldn’t be in prison. Same thing for women, and especially for Black women. They were seen as drains on the prison resources. For a lot of reasons, prison administrators thought they just made prisons run worse than they should.

“That again kind of changes around the American Civil War, starting in the South, where prisons are actually destroyed in the Civil War, so a lot of them don’t have prisons for a couple of decades. They kind of remake their criminal justice system in this period. A lot of the laws that come out for the next couple of decades after the Civil War, specifically targeting Black people and especially people who have been recently released from slavery. They try to kind of replicate the conditions of slavery and the control over Black people in that era. That becomes this huge thing. And there are other parts of the question, but I’ve already spoken for too long, so I’ll go ahead and stop there.

Emily Underwood: “Morgan, if it’s OK, I’d like to address a new question to you, because I think it speaks directly to what you’ve written about how being in prison was different for you from many people. The question is, can you speak about reentry challenges and how formerly incarcerated people have a hard time obtaining housing and employment?”

Morgan Godvin: “Yeah, absolutely. I experienced this, I lived this, and people have been living it. I really start to see these accounts in the 1960s. I’m not sure if they changed how society was dealing with criminal history then, or I’m just randomly seeing them then.

“That ‘civil death’ that Ashley talked about, it does not stop when you leave prison. You have served your sentence, you leave prison, but depending on what state you live in, you are still prohibited from voting. Why? I don’t know. The logic on the why never fully made sense to me, but even in Washington and California, ostensibly progressive states, if you are on parole, you do not have the right to vote. You are not a constituent. You are not a citizen with full rights, but it goes well beyond that.

“Little things like a state license to be a barber. ‘Oh, but you can’t do that if you have a criminal history.’ I couldn’t get an apartment until six months ago. I’m 32 years old. I got my first apartment when I was 32 years old because I have a criminal history. But very importantly, I’m white and middle class, so I only got a small fraction of what the most marginalized people of society experience upon releasing from prison. It’s hugely expensive. You get out with nothing at all, a huge gap in your work history, maybe a GED — go! You have nowhere to live. Average rents in the city of Portland are $1,700 a month. Minimum wage is $12 — have fun. And you’re just provided with absolutely no services.

“The people most in need of additional help get additional barriers instead. Everywhere we turn, there’s a criminal background check and we’re being denied for even really trivial things like a license to be a barber, an apartment. These basic things that we need to survive and operate in society are being denied to us.

“I just want to recognize my racial and class privilege made my reentry so much easier than most people’s, and it was still the hardest thing that I have ever done. It was hugely expensive. I didn’t own a single item of clothing. There’s just this cost and a psychological toll to it that’s never discussed. And yet, I have this vast social support network and I almost didn’t make it. People need more help, and society gives them more barriers. And then we sit around and scratch our heads go, ‘Why is our recidivism rate so high? I don’t know.’”

Emily Underwood: “Thanks so much. We have a couple of questions about sort of people who work in prisons and how their roles have changed over time. This question, in your studies, has the role of the correctional officer ever changed? I think if you can both speak briefly on that, I’d like to hear from both of you. Ashley, do you want to start?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. Thank you. If you go back to the jails, we didn’t have correctional officers, we had a jailer, basically one person in charge. In the first kind of reforms, we replaced the jailer with usually a reformer basically who would then be supervised by other reformers. And then when we got the first larger prisons, those were the reform jails, we got the first prisons, we started to have a warden in charge of a prison staff. A lot of times, these were people who had training in crafts, and so they could help people with the labor process in the prison.

“That was kind of the model for most the 19th century. Over the late 19th century, the kind of correctional officer, what we called at the time the guard, that started to kind of professionalize, and so they would get more training. They had more requirements. Increasingly, they had to do a civil service entrance exam-type thing. We started to get some changes in the professionalization and eventually the bureaucratization of the correctional workforce. So, we start getting like departments of corrections and so on.

“In the 20th century, the kind of next big division is we start to get a larger group of what we call treatment staff, as opposed to custodial staff. Traditionally, we had a lot of custodial staff that are kind of going through the prison, making sure things are safe. The treatment staff are increasingly like the teachers, the psychologists and so on, and that we start getting. Then that staff kind of starts to go away towards the end of the 20th century, or at least shrinks eventually, under mass incarceration, where it becomes more of a custodial staff to the point where the custodial staff, that’s basically how they see their job. They’re essentially guarding the prison, although we don’t call them guards. I’m not quite sure whether that’s considered insulting, so it’s correctional officers, but their job is basically to protect the prison, essentially.”

Emily Underwood: “Morgan, do you want to speak to the role of ...”

Morgan Godvin: “Yeah. It’s really interesting. When I’m in the archive, I see in 1909 in Wyoming prisons, there was this huge push towards rehabilitation. In the 1970s, in Connecticut, the warden prided himself on the fact that he was compliant with the United Nations’ minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. We see nothing like that now. I don’t think there’s a single facility in the United States that is compliant with that, but it definitely has shifted.

“Mid-20th century, the archive, I see repeated mentions of wardens and correctional officers emphasizing rehabilitation. Having sit-downs with the people in their custody, holding face-to-face, holding town halls, being transparent in a way that seems so foreign to me, because the correctional officers that I dealt with, although some were kind to me, the vast majority were neutral. And then there was a handful that were incredibly malicious.

“The whole punitive bent from the tough-on-crime, war-on-drugs area definitely trickled down into corrections. And there is a large segment of correctional officers who feel that it is their job to punish or to implement very strict regimes of discipline. And we don’t see as much rehabilitation culture in the 21st century, but that is starting to rewind, again, with the prison reform movement. And, again, we’re looking at rehabilitation, looking at prisons as failed institutions. You see the circularness of it all.”

Emily Underwood: “We have kind of a nice big-picture question here, which is what should we be asking of prisons? Ashley, you want to take that one first?”

Ashley Rubin: “Sure. Thank you. It’s going to sound weird, but in some sense, we have to lower our expectations. What I mean by that is we ask prisons to do too many things. We have these high expectations. In a lot of ways, again, that’s going to sound weird, because a lot of us don’t have high expectations of prisons because we know how bad they are. But as a society, we expect prisons to do a lot of things, including keeping prisoners alive and somewhat healthy, again, that we don’t always do a very good job on as the pandemic has even laid bare even more.

“Keep expenses down, which again is something that … we spend a lot of money on prisons, as Morgan pointed out. That’s another issue. Keep people in prison. And then occasionally we say, ‘Also, rehabilitate them.’ And then we kind of don’t give them enough resources to do rehabilitation. And then we also kind of expect the prison to be this perfect thing that if we do give it enough resources to rehabilitate, it’s going to perfectly fix people so they don’t go off and commit crime again. But then people go off into the world exactly as Morgan said, and whatever rehabilitation you had, it’s not going to be really much of a case against everything that you have to face on the outside when you have zero support.

“Just kind of recognizing that we ask a lot of things of prisons and we don’t really give them ... We throw money at some things and not at other things and just kind of taking that into account and recognizing that prisons can’t do certain things. Rehabilitation is not necessarily the best thing in prison. Maybe community spaces would be better for that. Just in a sense, kind of expecting less, because otherwise, every reform cycle we become kind of ... Prisons have failed and we get really mad at prisons and then we’ve redesigned them again. If we just kind of lowered our expectations for that and we’re a little bit more patient, I think that would be helpful.”

Morgan Godvin: “Can I chime in on that?”

Emily Underwood: “Morgan, can you speak to what you think we should expect of prisons?”

Morgan Godvin: “Yeah. I completely agree with Ashley. A lot of it is beyond the domain. We have to consider people’s social context, from which they came and to which they’re returning. Pell Grants have been restored, so that should improve access to higher education in prison, and we know that it’s like one of the number-one ways to reduce recidivism.

“My best friend in prison was and is, after a very long fight over state licensure, a psychologist. She was incarcerated — incarcerated psychologist. Prisons are not a safe place. The adverse childhood experiences of the people around me, so high, so much trauma. Here’s what I ask of prison: Stop making people worse. Stop re-traumatizing them. The level of violence that I hear coming out of high-security men’s institutions breaks my heart. While I realize they can’t fix people that may be in their purview, they could probably stop making people worse.”

Emily Underwood: “OK. I wish we could get to all of the great questions in the chat, but we are starting to run out of time. I want to thank everybody who joined today and I want to encourage you perhaps to continue the conversation outside of this chat. You could engage on social media about it, share something you learned today.

“If you enjoyed today and you want to help us keep making these events and high-quality science coverage freely accessible to all, please consider donating at Thank you again to our event partner, JSTOR Daily, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for their support of Knowable Magazine. And of course, special thanks to Morgan and Ashley for joining us today.

“Can you bring them back? I want to say goodbye. It’s been so wonderful spending this time with you. Thank you so much. Anything else that the two of you would like to add before we sign off?”

Morgan Godvin: “I just want to thank you for this event. It’s always so weird to me to mix the fact that I’ve been to prison with a professional experience. I know my positionality is super-weird, so I just appreciate you giving me this time to talk to me.”

Ashley Rubin: “Yeah. Thank you so much for organizing this. Thank you, everybody, for coming. As Emily said, keep the conversation going. There’s so much to learn about prisons today and throughout history. Most people don’t know about them, and so just learning more so that when you vote on things, when you vote for people, when you vote on things that matter for changing prison policy, just get informed. Thank you for being part of this conversation.”

Emily Underwood: “Well, it’s been a real pleasure. This conversation will be posted on the Knowable website, where it will be free to view and share. We will also be posting additional resources, including links to article and project articles. The best way to keep up with these discussions and everything Knowable does is to sign up for our weekly newsletter, which you can do on our website, or follow us on Twitter. And we will see you at our next event, on vaccine equity, on April 20. Thanks again, everyone, for joining us.”