What Makes a Prison?

Recent calls to bring back asylums suggest that confinement can be benevolent, even rehabilitative—but, in reality, “a prison is a prison is a prison.”

Wherever we find the state engaged in potentially lethal repression, we find prison.

Consider the recent push to bring back the asylum as a mechanism to remove mentally ill or houseless people from public visibility. Notwithstanding the benevolent veneer, such plans quickly reveal their coercive nature. Much as incarceration relies on a therapeutic fallacy—that prisons “rehabilitate their inmates”—the ostensibly therapeutic purpose of asylums is secured through carceral means. Rather than an “asylum to prison pipeline,” we should think of them as a convergence.

The call to bring back the asylum shows that nothing in American carceral history is gone for good. As president, Donald Trump called for the asylum’s return just as surely as he once called to “bring back the death penalty” against the five teenagers wrongfully convicted of an attack on a jogger in Central Park. And it’s not just the asylum: even the firing squad has made a comeback amid difficulties securing the chemicals needed to conduct lethal injections.

Incarceration persists, then, because of its elasticity. Prisons are rarely “prisons.” Rather, they are called other names: correctional facilities, reformatories, penitentiaries, jails, and detention centers.1 Each institution has a unique name, sometimes in honor of a Great Man or a local tree, that fails to convey their widespread presence and overarching purpose.

The all-encompassing nature of the prison is revealed by two recent and incisive books: Who Would Believe a Prisoner? Indiana Women’s Carceral Institutions, 1848–1920, edited by Michelle Daniel Jones and Elizabeth Angeline Nelson, and Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum by Mab Segrest. Both are local case studies, of Indiana and Georgia respectively. The connection between prisons and asylums, including the prison function of asylums, is common to studies of incarceration in early America.2 Administrations of Lunacy and Who Would Believe a Prisoner? extend those connections farther into the critical decades before and, especially, following the Civil War. What emerges across these texts is that incarceration is a way of knowing as well as a form of doing. Each book mines what Segrest describes as “the intimate and the historic, action and reflection” in search of usable pasts that can, as Jones writes, “counter the dominant narratives, to expand the canon of knowers and knowledge, and to rewrite history justly.”

A prison is a prison is a prison. To inquire into a prison is to investigate the prevailing wisdom (whether political, economic, social, and geographic) of repressive control. It is to examine who those in power deem disposable, and by what means. It is a line of inquiry that allows—perhaps requires—us to investigate institutions that share similar and similarly adaptive modes of governance. In fact, the history of incarceration is always a history of institutions and the state management of social difference. Across different geographies, social control of an always gendered and racialized working class remained the shared purpose of the various institutions—only sometimes bearing the name “prison”—under consideration here. Examining its function, rather than the hopes ascribed to it, the prison must be defined as a structure of repressive state captivity.

Though impressive and meticulously documented works of history, neither book is the product of professional historians. A longtime feminist social justice activist, Segrest has a PhD in literature, taught gender and women’s studies for years, and has been an incisive memoirist and essayist. The contributors to Who Would Believe a Prisoner?, meanwhile, are women who have been or are currently incarcerated and have formed a research collaborative called the Indiana Women’s Prison History Project (IWPHP). The only exceptions are a preface by Kelsey Kauffman and an afterword by Elizabeth Nelson, academics who have supported the research done by the incarcerated historians of the IWPHP. (Although biographical information about the Who Would Believe a Prisoner? contributors is unfortunately not included in the book, the companion website includes details and photos of the authors.) Across both volumes, personal experience and political commitment guide these generative investigations of carceral history.

The nature of prison resides in its purpose, not its name or structure. Yet there have been many shifts in name and structure over the generations of American captivity, as well as in the numbers of people who find themselves incarcerated. Though repression is the prison’s raison d’être, the mechanisms used to secure incarceration change over time.

Following these changing procedures, justifications, uses, and names, Segrest describes her pursuit as being “Not the why of it, which might be easily answered with words like ‘greed’ and ‘social control’ and ‘power’—but how?” And, as evidenced in both texts under review, alongside a bevy of recent scholarship on the carceral state, the “how” of incarceration is always on the move. What’s clear in reading these books together, though, is that even in different geographies, the “how” of prison shifted in similar directions at similar times.

More than 600 miles divide the Milledgeville asylum in Georgia from the Indiana Women’s Prison. And yet, both institutions are 19th-century creations born of an ascendant racist-patriarchal Victorianism premised on indigenous dispossession.3 Indiana fought for the Union, whereas Georgia was a stronghold of the Confederacy. Yet both states, in turn, used their carceral facilities—prisons and asylums—as sites of forced labor, coercive religious instruction, medical experimentation, and laboratories of segregation, both racial and gendered.

The macabre transformations in the technologies of confinement aligned with—and, even, helped define—the leading scientific insight of a given era. Both prisons and asylums embodied the scientific advances, to the extent they could be recognized as such, of the early 20th century. The effort to “reform” deviants began with their removal, but often ended with their sterilization, lobotomization, or forced medicalization.

The shared outcomes—the overlapping “how”—gives us a working definition of what makes a prison. In the essay “Sisters,” IWPHP member Christina Kovats quotes an article authored by two formerly incarcerated scholars, Michelle Daniel Jones and Lori Record, that offers the best working definition of a prison. Jones and Record define prison “as a place of confinement for crimes and of forcible restraint.” Jones and Record go on to say that “if the persons committed to these places cannot leave when they want to and are, in fact, confined against their will, it becomes irrelevant whether the place is called a prison—or, instead, a refuge, correctional facility, house, penitentiary, or even laundry—if it operates as a prison. It is equally irrelevant if the facility is Catholic or Protestant, private or public. The operations and characteristics define a prison as a prison.”

The history of prisons is one of adaptation through reform and contestation. That renders the history of carceral institutions elliptical and nonlinear, especially when trying to account for the perspectives of the captives. Social histories of incarceration such as these work through the extant archives in a prodigious manner. But to succeed they must also read beyond the archive, so as to access the frameworks and insights of incarcerated people.

The starting point for both projects is that the experience of confinement equips a person with special insight into the project of incarceration. For Segrest, this means reading against the grain of state records that document the lives of those confined at the notorious Georgia asylum. Her method borrows heavily from Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection as a way to read the lives and desires of subjugated people into the stale paternalism of institutional sources, shaped by what Hartman memorably termed the afterlife of slavery.4

For the contributors to Who Would Believe a Prisoner?, it means reading the archive through their own experiences as criminalized women. Jones describes their collective method as being “the embodied observer, one who views the archive from the position of the captive, from the inside of their experience.” The authors are not “participant-observers,” Jones notes, because that would suggest that they chose or consented to their confinement. Yet their “lived experiences with the criminal legal system, and with the prison in particular” is the “lens through which we analyze the archive.”

The essays in the book cover the 19th and early 20th centuries, concluding before any of the contributors were born. But this epistemic shift, together with the deep and rigorous collaboration at the heart of the project, allows the authors to make sense of early carceral history in a way that has eluded many observers.

The IWPHP leverages this self-reflexive approach in chronicling the development of Indiana’s carceral facilities. What begins with a study of the Indiana Women’s Prison unfolds into a history of reformatories, jails, prisons, and religious institutions (namely, the Home for Friendless Women and the House of the Good Shepherd). This multisited investigation shared a modus operandi in the patriarchal regulation of women’s and girls’ lives and bodies. Segrest, meanwhile, studies the evolution of a singular institution, which began “as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum in 1842, was renamed the Georgia State Sanitarium (1899) and Milledgeville State Hospital (1929), and became today’s Central State Hospital (1967).”

All of these facilities are what Foucault would call “complete and austere institutions,” whose “normalizing” function justifies punishment as a vital form of statecraft.5 The emphasis on “normalization” also helps us see how questions of dis/ability and gender non/conformity are at the root of institutions that do the work of prison under other names. For central to the prison’s normalization of punishment is the state’s presumed license to control deviants from bourgeois conceptions of “normal.”

To inquire into a prison is to investigate the prevailing wisdom (whether political, economic, social, and geographic) of repressive control.

The last four contributions to Who Would Believe a Prisoner? expand their geographical and institutional focus. Unraveling what had been taken for granted by standard histories of American prison (and had, therefore, shaped the authors’ own founding assumptions), the contributors reject the claim that the Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls (as the precursor to the Indiana Women’s Prison) was the first women’s prison in the United States. Instead, the authors demonstrate that the Houses of the Good Shepherd were “prisons masked as convents.”

Much as feminist scholars have shown sex work to be a foundational part of imperialism, so too do the incarcerated historians of the IWPHP reveal the regulation of sex work as well as gender nonconformity by an outfit of the Catholic church to be the true first women’s prison in Indiana.6 That cause would be taken up in time by the formal prison, as well as by Protestant and Quaker reformers who shared the conservative mores of the House of the Good Shepherd.

Carceral power, in other words, allows us to locate the prison in a variety of institutions. But such connections are one-way streets: although the prison can be found in the asylum, mental health care eludes both institutions. That disjuncture points to one flaw in Administrations of Lunacy: Segrest’s repetition of oft-cited claims “that 90 percent of today’s psychiatric beds are in jails and prisons” or that jails are now the “largest mental institution” in a given county, state, or even the country overall (the last designation she awards to Chicago’s Cook County Jail). Segrest offers these claims as calls, specifically for those in the field of psychiatry, to end mass incarceration.

Yet, as disability scholar Liat Ben-Moshe has written, seeing prisons as the new asylums misstates the nature of incarceration: “Put differently, generally speaking, the inmate population in mental hospitals tended to be white, older, and more equally distributed by gender than the prison population.” Ben-Moshe warns that the claim of prisons supplanting asylums is often leveraged by people with a vested interest in one or the other branch of the carceral system—and indeed, Segrest draws primarily from the National Sheriffs’ Association as evidence of jails/prisons as mental health institutions.7 Further, Ben-Moshe writes, prisons are themselves disabling institutions: the psychiatric beds in jails and prisons are often reserved for those made “crazy” by incarceration, rather than for people who enter the institution with recognized mental illness. One cannot, and should not, head to a local jail when in need of psychiatric services.

Whether in a convent, an asylum, or a correctional facility, the prison is a form of what historian Sarah Haley has elsewhere called gendered racial terror.8 We should understand contemporary calls to reopen the asylums to address insecurity in housing and health care as a form of mass incarceration.

Consider Jordan Neely. He demanded water and care on a New York City subway. For that, he was choked to death for 15 minutes by 24-year-old ex-Marine Daniel Penny, on the afternoon of May 1, 2023.9

Responding less to Neely’s murder than to his presence, New York City mayor Eric Adams said the killing should serve as cause for involuntary hospitalization. Adams had been pushing this cause for months before Neely’s death, under the deceptively named Supportive Interventions Act. (In accelerating the fusion of policing and social services, Adams’s approach is a more severe version of the “CARE court” model that California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last fall.) “The tragic reality of severe mental illness,” Adams said, “is that some who suffer from it are at times unaware of their own need for care.” In addition to widening the criteria that would mark someone able to be involuntarily hospitalized, Adams’s plan would empower police officers alongside social workers to determine who “appears to be mentally ill and displays an inability to meet basic living needs.”

These plans—as Death Panel podcast hosts Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant wrote in The Nation—are “nothing but punishment, doled out to individuals for their crime of living in a society that does not guarantee housing for all.”10 Once again, elites turn to carceral power to manage the violence caused by their unwillingness to meet human need.

Seen in this way, perhaps, Eric Adams is already building the new asylum. Daniel Penny is in its employ, and Jordan Neely is the first of its victims. icon

  1. See, for example, Melanie Newport, This Is My Jail: Local Politics and the Rise of Mass Incarceration (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022), and Kristina Shull, Detention Empire: Reagan’s War on Immigrants and the Seeds of Resistance (University of North Carolina Press, 2022).
  2. See, for example, David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Little, Brown, 1971); Michael Meranze, Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835 (University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell, eds., Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America (University of Georgia Press, 2012).
  3. Segrest devotes more attention to the conquest of Indigenous land as the foundation of state building, including for the asylum itself, presumably, at least in part, because of the greater resources available to her research than those of the IWPHP team. One wishes the IWPHP authors were able to visit the archives, libraries, and communities necessary to incorporate these histories into their volume.
  4. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Norton, 2022 [1997]).
  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (Vintage, 1977), 231–56, 298–308.
  6. On the links between prostitution and empire, see Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2003).
  7. Liat Ben-Moshe, Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition (University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 139–59; quote is from 147.
  8. Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
  9. Media attention fixated on the slain Neely over his killer. Even Penny’s name remained unknown for four days while news reports discussed Neely’s fragile and belligerent emotional state, born of his tragic circumstances: his years of housing insecurity, the murder of his mother, his own “lengthy criminal history.” Neely, the New York Times reported, was on the city’s “‘top 50’ list of homeless people at risk.” When Penny was identified as the killer, we learned that he played lacrosse in high school.
  10. Such policy moves hearken back to the age of the asylum, institutions that, as Adler-Bolton and Vierkant note, “were infamous for their horrible living conditions” that “primarily functioned as sites to detain the mad and poor, removing them from society.”
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image: Milledgeville State Hospital, Central Building, Milledgeville, Baldwin County, GA (1937). Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division / Wikimedia