Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Review: With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America

by Scott Christianson,Northeastern University Press, 1998

Review by Rick Card

Prisoners have played an important role in the entire story of America. From the founding of the New World by Christopher Columbus to the economic power of their cheap labor today, convicts are as germane to America as apple pie or baseball.

Scott Christianson's new book, With Liberty For Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America, paints a portrait of our nation that is both undeniable and fascinating. Christianson writes, "Starting in the early seventeenth century and continuing for 150 years organized, international prisoner trade, of which the African slave trade was just one important part, provided the foundation for England's colonial wealth and America's identity." He concludes that "to the extent that American history is the story of immigration, then American colonial history is largely the story of the immigration of prisoners."

Citing a study by A. Roger Ekrich, Christianson highlights the conclusion that a quarter of all British emigrants to colonial America during the eighteenth century were convicts. A fact that positions America similar to Australia as an English penal colony-information unlikely to be found in any high school or college history book.

With Liberty For Some, however, is much more than mere history. It documents the emergence of imprisonment in our nation from the first state prison built in New York to today's massive prison-industrial complex. Along the way, Christianson introduces us to hundreds of individuals, from the obscure to the infamous to the beloved who have endured the cruelty and restraint of imprisonment.

Whether it was slavery, involuntary servitude, or criminal deterrence, this book explores how prison has been utilized to create profit, foster economic growth, segregate people along economic and racial lines, silence political dissent, and promulgate the study of eugenics.

The book is held together by fascinating historical facts. For example, Christianson provides statistics from 1798 which demonstrate the return of two convicts set free from the first American prison. Alas! The birth of recidivism. And to underscore the point, he documents an immediate growth in the trend over the next six years, explaining that by 1803, 25 of the 155 prisoners at the state prison in New York were repeat offenders.

More than anything else, however, and without any special emphasis, Christianson weaves a thread of economic incentive throughout American's history of incarceration. Through the sale of convicts by the English to forced contract labor, he documents an unbroken chain of profiteering at the expense of the imprisoned which runs the entire 500 year span of American history and continues on to this day.

One feature that makes With Liberty For Some valuable is the number of rare facts unveiled. When portraying the treatment of many prisoners throughout the book, Christianson describes the use of agonizing devices such as the "iron gag," "shower bath," and "mad chair," each psychologically debilitating and potentially fatal. Other revelations, such as Thomas Edison's role in using the electric chair to execute criminals, rivets the mind to the true extent that imprisonment plays in our society's history. And finally, glimpses into the birth of popular criminal justice trends like three strikes, civil commitment, and the war on drugs gives these issues new dimensions.

Leaving no stone unturned, Christianson also focuses on the people who've served time in prison, a list including slaves, Indians, socialists, reds, feminists, as well as criminals. Daniel Boone, Sitting Bull, William Burroughs, David Crosby, Billie Holiday, Andrew Jackson, and Henry David Thoreau are only a few of the nearly two hundred names Christianson identifies as having spent time in American jails.

If there is any weakness in this book, it would have to be Christianson's reluctance to add any personal opinion or proposals-a loss considering the incredible depth of his knowledge on the subject. With the exception of general observations, such as, "...rates of incarceration are not necessarily related to, or a product of, official crime rates," and "Prison still serves the economic system. And serves it well," Christianson merely leaves it up to the reader to decide what to think.

Despite having academic features (1500 reference notes, over 80 bibliographical sources, and a wide index), With Liberty For Some, is far from pendantic. Christianson's style is prosaic and humane, making friends with even the most resistant readers. And his clarity shines on from the first page to the last.

This book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking a completely unbiased look at America's history of imprisonment. A history that Christianson concludes is part of us all: "Five hundred years later, and it is still growing, spreading out further into the countryside, fastening itself deeper into the soil."

With Liberty for Some costs $35.00 (hardback), plus $3.50 shipping, from: Northeastern University Press, Box 6525, Ithaca, NY 14851.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login