Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Jennifer Graber's "The Furnace of Affliction"

Jennifer Graber is assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, and reported the following:
“Eddy wrote a pamphlet accusing city officials of using the treadmill for ‘degrading rather than reforming purposes’…. Officials allowed visitors to ‘gawk at criminals on the treadmill,’ treating them ‘as beasts in the market.’”

Thomas Eddy’s 1823 pamphlet referred to three treadmills installed inside New York City’s penitentiary. Sixteen inmates powered each mill by stepping for hours on end. According to the London Quakers who came up with the idea, the instrument should grind grain or pump water, making the inmates’ labor productive.

As Eddy’s critical pamphlet shows, there were sharp disagreements about how new punitive technologies were implemented. In New York, the treadmills merely turned in circles, without processing grain or propelling water. Visitors paid to watch inmates at this tedious work. Eddy was outraged. “Every attempt to treat [the inmate] as less than human is equally to outrage the feelings of nature…and to violate the principles of Christianity.” A member of the Society of Friends, Eddy articulated similar criticisms of almost every kind of punishment used in the early republic.

Except for his very own prison. In this way, Eddy’s treadmill critique stands as one small example of the way evangelical Protestant reformers approached corrections from the 1790s through the 1850s. Just as he hated the treadmill, he railed against corporal punishments and bad prison food. According to Eddy, imperfect criminal justice jeopardized both the criminal’s humanity and nation’s moral standing.

What Eddy, and reformers like him, could not see was that their own prescriptions for punishment were also degrading – at least from the prisoners’ perspective. Eddy did not want to abolish the treadmill, but to use it differently. Though he never saw himself as using force, the prison he designed and administered in lower Manhattan stripped criminals of their clothes, hair, and freedom of movement. He advocated long periods of solitary confinement. He mandated inmate labor meant to fill state coffers.

The Furnace of Affliction explores the way Protestant reformers such as Eddy brought their own notions of human connectedness and redemptive experience to early republic prison experiments. At different points, reformers had significant influence on prison architecture, discipline, and management. At other points, like the treadmill controversy, reformers disagreed with state officials and positioned themselves as outside critics. Over time, however, a trend emerged. To maintain influence, reformers surrendered more and more of their particular Protestant practices and articulated a “religiosity of citizenship” in which virtue could be equated with hard work and criminals suffered in prison not for offending God, but for their crimes against the state.
Learn more about The Furnace of Affliction at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue