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My call on Friday for more information on Civil War era prisons bore an unexpected rich harvest. A single reply but an absolutely riveting one.

Imagined Prisons responded with this:

These images are fascinating and haunting, and the idea of the modern prison as “a permanent abstraction of earlier jails” is a compelling one.

As for the carceral spaces – makeshift and otherwise – of the Civil War, some authorities have cited Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus rights as a precedent for the Bush Administration’s policies in today’s war prisons. E.E. Hale’s classic short novella, “The Man without a Country,” written in response to Lincoln’s controversial move, tells the story of a man sentenced to spend the rest of his life aboard U.S. Navy ships, in the extralegal zone outside the boundaries of the nation-state.

You might also be interested in this poem by Herman Melville, from the 1866 volume “Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War”:

In the Prison Pen

Listless he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;
‘Tis barren as a pelican-beach–
But his world is ended there.

Nothing to do; and vacant hands
Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think–to recollect,
But the blur is on his brain.

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
Like those on Virgil’s shore–
A wilderness of faces dim,
And pale ones gashed and hoar.

A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
He totters to his lair–
A den that sick hands dug in earth
Ere famine wasted there,

Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead–
Dead in his meagreness.

Imagined Prisons is the accompanying website for the book The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith, which will appear from Yale University Press in September of 2009.

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Carr. Yale University Press, September 2009

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith. Yale University Press, September 2009

The book examines the history of the U.S. prison system and its imaginative life in nineteenth – and twentieth – century culture. Caleb Smith argues that the dehumanization inherent in captivity has always been at the heart of American civil society.

Imagined Prisons is a forum for conversation about the book and the questions it raises;

What is the history of incarceration in America? What roles do prisons and prisoners play in our political life and in our culture? How have artists and writers, both inside prisons and in the world at large, invited us to imagine the institutions of captivity? Visitors to this site might be interested in the sprawling prison system of the twenty-first century, including the scandals of American war prisons overseas. They may also wish to explore the long, sometimes tortured history of jails, penitentiaries, plantations, and other dark places that have haunted the new world, with its promise of liberty and justice for all.

What a significant new resource with which to reassess the prison within America’s cultural landscape. Prison Photography, too, is attempting (admittedly ham-handedly on occasion) to define the current representation/consumption of prison imagery within our society.

May I suggest that books such as Caleb Smith’s and sites such as mine exist because sites of incarceration – “dark places” – have been over-zealously operated by controlling minorities and not adequately discussed by the at-large majority?


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