"Time to Take Prisons Seriously" or, The Secret History of the American Penitentiary


Loyola College prof and Ludwig Von Mises Institute scholar Daniel J. D'Amico will be conducting an online course on the history of prisons in America. From his intro:

…few are familiar with why exactly Tocqueville came to visit the United States. He did not travel intending to investigate civil society. He was assigned by the French government to investigate and report upon America's newly designed and applied penitentiaries.

Along with his friend and colleague Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville coauthored On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833) — before he draftedDemocracy in America. Tocqueville and Beaumont's report describes the rationale and institutional arrangements used in various townships of early America to enforce criminal law. They summarize the various types and magnitudes of criminal punishments used throughout the nation. And, in perhaps their most unique contribution, they describe the conditions and social processes underway within the prison facilities that Tocqueville spent most of his time in America touring.

It was not by coincidence that Tocqueville then decided to write about civil society. His two texts are complimentary responses to the same research question: What is the source of America's exceptionally early and rapid rate of economic and social development?

More here. The online course starts June 7 and sounds incredibly interesting.

Look for a pending issue of Reason (July's, I believe) that is dedicated to the "Incarceration Nation" that the Land of the Free has become over the past few decades. archive on Punishment/Prisons.

NEXT: Gas Prices and the Market

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  1. I have spent some time locked up….

    You wont believe how well the Navy prepared me for jail time…

    Just an other underway period…

    1. I hear the food isn’t as good on the boat.

  2. the military should be forced to take judicial diversions. our young, black males would do better in the military than prison.

    1. You think our military is a place for worthless scum? No! Our military is a place of honor, a place for great men. Yes, sometimes not so great men are given a second chance and the opportunity to redeem themselves in the military, but those poor “young black males” in prison did not get to prison for helping old ladies cross the street.

      1. You two fucks deserve each other.

        1. stay outta it turdbreath

      2. If by “honor” you mean lots of chickenshit and by “great men” you mean borderline psychopaths, then you sir are correct.

        1. Who’s your source on this? Oliver Stone? The military has changed a lot since the Task Force Barker days.

          I have found that people who have never been around the military tend to have these sorts of delusions. They believe that everyone who serves is a bloodthirsty psychopaths. In my experience, the opposite is true. Greg Gutfeld, when he was an editor for Men’s Health, commissioned a study that found the same thing. Despite the high publicity for military suicides and other problems, most if not all of those issues are more common in the general population.

          1. My source? Serving in the military in the late 80s and early 90s. What is your source?

  3. our young, black males would do better in the military than prison.

    Why not just sell their labor to the highest bidder, slaver?

    1. Is this really a comment that you should make this close to the NFL draft?

      1. Shit, that made me laugh.

      2. I have long felt like a racist when playing fantasy football. The frequent terms used are “I own Adrain Peterson.” It borders a bit on distasteful.

        1. Being a fantasy racist is the least of your problems.

    2. we already are WTF. and the highest bidders are drug dealers

      1. I don’t know what you’re up to, but “we” are doing no such thing.

        1. america has tha largest prison pop in the world and the majority are young, black males who would have a better future in the military.

          1. Which is one of the consequences of the idiotic war on drugs that libertarians oppose. So why not fix that instead of shipping off unwilling conscripts?

            1. while i agree w gen mccaffrey that the drug war has failed, i do not agree w full legalization of narcotics. regardless the drug laws will not change quickly so many, many more young, black males will be continually locked-up.

              1. i do not agree w full legalization of narcotics.
                So you support the policies that produce:

                america has tha largest prison pop in the world and the majority are young, black males

                Yet you suffer no cagnitive dissonance?

                1. cagnitive dissonance

                  Is that when you’re a fan of both The Public Enemy and Yankee Doodle Dandy?

                  1. Max has made his last post|11.17.10 @ 7:20PM|#
                    Max|6.24.10 @ 3:29PM|#

                    Go suck ron puals dick, morons. You peeple are fucking retarded. I`m done coming to this wingnut sight. this is my last post.

    3. Worth noting that selling black male convicts into slavery would technically still be constitutionally permissible.

  4. The chapter on comparing France and American prisons interests me. I’ve been researching articles on how the European wealthy would entertain themselves by visiting prisons, and insane asylums

    1. If only you really knew the joys of examining the great unwashed from behind the monocle.

  5. Could Tocqueville’s American misgivings have been unduly fueled by the nature of his visit? Don’t cops become cynical because they so often deal with disappointing people?

  6. @rather,

    Would you send along the sources that you are referring to?



    1. Are you related to the Minneapolis D’Amicos who own and operate restaurants?

    2. My last computer crashed and I lost my research. I read in French and I am unsure where I found the original info but when I return to it, I’ll email. Countries have criminal/ mental health judgments online: is a good source for England

      1. Bethlem Royal Hospital
        Even on a list of American insane asylums, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Bethlem Royal Hospital in London. Bethlem, the world’s oldest institution specializing in the mentally ill, started admitting unbalanced patients in 1357. Throughout most of its history the conditions in the asylum were atrocious. For example, in the 18th century the public could pay a penny for the privilege of watching the “freaks”; they were even permitted to poke the caged patients with a long stickAs an indication of what a house of horrors Bethlem Royal Hospital was, the word bedlam is derived from its name.…..e-asylums/

        IIRC, a member of the royal family petitioned for the end of this treatment

        1. ahh.. now I understand why you are so focused on labeling certain commenters as “retards”, and why you poke them/us with long sticks.

          1. I may have used that word in anger to mimic what was said to me but I regret it

  7. Just another example of how all important French literature is in some way related to death and/or prisons. I put that to a grad student in French Lit. The only counter-example she had was some Medieval poetry.

    1. Le Petit Mort?

      1. See, they even compare that to death.

  8. Yes, prisons are stupid. Trouble is, nobody’s come up with anything better that can be implemented in the real world. Unless von Mises & Co. can suggest a practical alternative, I don’t see the point in the discussion.

    1. We can drastically limit the reasons someone can be sent to prison. For property crimes restitution makes much more sense than prison.

    2. Just do what we did before prisons.

      1. Quick execution after trial?

      2. Flogging?


        Criminal laws that would fit on a napkin?

        1. All of the above.

    3. Nothing more serious than public shaming for vice crimes.

      Restitution where it is feasible.

      Painful but minimally harmful corporal punishment for minor violent crimes or property crimes where restitution is impractical. More serious corporal punishment for more moderate violent crimes, or else imprisonment. In fact, to avoid any thorny 8th amendment issues (which are bullshit in this case IMO), let the prisoner choose between prison time and an equivalent corporal sentence in these cases.

      Indefinite imprisonment for murders or serious assaults and rapes. If for some reason we’re so dirt poor we can’t afford to imprison them, execution.

  9. Speaking of unnecessarily locking up persons……..mode=story

  10. —“His two texts are complimentary responses to the same research question: What is the source of America’s exceptionally early and rapid rate of economic and social development?”—

    What? No comment about how we grew economically and socially due to the many government programs in effect to help the less fortunate?

    I am apalled at our resident liberals for making me point it out.

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