The Pattern of Prison Reform

Written by Tucker Smith

This past Tuesday night, historian Amy Wood enlightened audience members on prison reform in the South during a lecture entitled “Crime and Punishment in the Age of Jim Crow.”

This lecture is part of a series that started in February that considers how historians can tackle problems of mass incarceration and its relation to race.

Professor Wood presented new research that tied together prison reform in the South at the turn of the 20th century to the present day.

Wood stated that many of the questions reformers asked during the turn of the 20th century in the South are still questioned today. She said “a line of continuity” can be drawn between both groups.

In recent years, there has been a clear growth of interest in mass incarceration, especially juxtaposed with race. This is evidenced on CC’s campus by a growing number of demonstrations and lectures centered around one or both of the topics.

There has been growing skepticism towards state power and debate over whether incarceration serves as a state mechanism for social control. Many find themselves asking, ‘what is the state’s role and why do we see it as the cause of our problem?’

Professor Wood draws a line of continuity from these questions people ask today to similar ones asked by reformers in the South.

Many historians write-off Southern reformers during the Jim Crow era as impersonal, since they were out-shined by their Northern counterparts. However, Wood argues they should not be overlooked. She claims that these reformers were more compassionate and sympathetic towards criminals than ever before.

Wood argued that it is impressive that reformers were able to maintain this mentality considering the white supremacist and vengeful attitude that dominated Southern prisons. Wood said that the Southern reformers “mimicked the language of Northern reform by calling for ‘modern and sympathetic standard of prison management.’”

The Southern states were driven by profit, and, therefore, their prisons were brutal environments. The reformers saw the centralized state as the solution to achieve certain rights for prisoners that would contribute to their reform.

Reformers did the utmost to challenge the state into fulfilling what they considered to be the state’s responsibility to citizens, and slowly succeeded over time. However, their rate of success is not the point of Professor Wood’s lecture because the North far exceeded the South in that regard.

Professor Wood argued that Southern reformers spoke from the heart and adopted more progressive ideas concerning the state and criminals than they are given credit for. They believed criminals had fallen from grace and that prison would only further foster alienation.

“The reformers represented a new social thinking that emphasized ‘connectedness,’” said Professor Wood.  She argued that the same pattern is repeating itself now.

Professor Carol Neel of the History Department said, “The best thing to learn in contemporary terms is that this subject has a long history and it didn’t pop out of a paper bag.”

Mass incarceration is at an all-time high right now, but has been an issue for decades within the U.S. There have been periods of reform where the state’s motives have been questioned and challenged. However, the activism fades until it rises again in a parallel moment.

The turn of the 20th century and present day are parallel moments in time, and progress is not necessarily being made. Professor Wood’s lecture considered the history of reform and recognized that people have been asking the right questions, yet long-term progress is not being achieved.

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