First Advisor

Jennifer Tappan

Date of Award


Document Type

Closed Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in History and University Honors






Prisons -- United States -- History, Imprisonment -- United States -- History, African Americans -- Legal status laws etc -- History, African Americans -- Social conditions, Indians of North America -- Social conditions, Slavery -- Law and legislation -- United States -- History, Fugitive slaves -- United States -- History




Despite popular scholarship's conclusion that the American penitentiary had humanitarian origins, focus on the relationship between the prison and both American Indian nations and black communities reveal its deep and previously ignored connection to slavery and imperialism, both domestic and global. Since black civilians were an intentional subject of the first prisons, American penologists looked to plantation carcerality for inspiration. As America began to vision its imperial expansion across the continent and controlling colonies abroad, the young Empire shifted its strategy from military violence to carceral control and legal colonialism. At the same time, prisons across the “free” North engaged in a superlegal trafficking of their black prisoners into Southern slavery under the authority of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, even though many prisoners were known to be free. Greater police presence and increased prisons served to maintain the local and federal governments’ racial control through an Economy of Tenuous Freedom - the State holding black freedom captive to prevent struggles for liberation, civil rights, and political power. Nevertheless, the 1830's saw a widespread mobilization of black anti-carceral activism under the leadership of the working-class black community and a leader willing to fight for freedom at any cost.


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