Michael Vick and the Politics of Prison Redemption

Paul Harvey

I always like it when someone comes up with a title guaranteed to drive a little blog traffic. The present title comes from Jennifer Graber, Professor of Religious Studies at Wooster College and author of the just-published The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America. In her piece today for History News Network, she uses the Michael Vick saga, and the deep ambivalence about punishment and redemption, as a contemporary case study to investigate the roots of this ambivalence. A little excerpt here:

In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.

More on the book here, and below:

Focusing on the intersection of Christianity and politics in the American penitentiary system, Jennifer Graber explores evangelical Protestants' efforts to make religion central to emerging practices and philosophies of prison discipline from the 1790s through the 1850s.>Initially, state and prison officials welcomed Protestant reformers' and ministers' recommendations, particularly their ideas about inmate suffering and redemption. Over time, however, officials proved less receptive to the reformers' activities, and inmates also opposed them. Ensuing debates between reformers, officials, and inmates revealed deep disagreements over religion's place in prisons and in the wider public sphere as the separation of church and state took hold and the nation's religious environment became more diverse and competitive. Examining the innovative New York prison system, Graber shows how Protestant reformers failed to realize their dreams of large-scale inmate conversion or of prisons that reflected their values. To keep a foothold in prisons, reformers were forced to relinquish their Protestant terminology and practices and instead to adopt secular ideas about American morals, virtues, and citizenship. Graber argues that, by revising their original understanding of prisoner suffering and redemption, reformers learned to see inmates' afflictions not as a necessary prelude to a sinner's experience of grace but as the required punishment for breaking the new nation's laws.


Kathryn Lofton said…
This is a fantastic work. There are so few new monographs on early national religious history, and I'll say: this one is worth the reading. Congratulations, Jen!
Anonymous said…
looks like a great book - I can't wait to read it!

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