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Capital and Convict

Race, Region, and Punishment in Post–Civil War America
Henry Kamerling

BUY Cloth · 328 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813940557 · $45.00 · Nov 2017
BUY Ebook · 328 pp. · ISBN 9780813940564 · $45.00 · Nov 2017

Both in the popular imagination and in academic discourse, North and South are presented as fundamentally divergent penal systems in the aftermath of the Civil War, a difference mapped onto larger perceived cultural disparities between the two regions. The South’s post Civil War embrace of chain gangs and convict leasing occupies such a prominent position in the nation’s imagination that it has come to represent one of the region’s hallmark differences from the North. The regions are different, the argument goes, because they punish differently.

Capital and Convict challenges this assumption by offering a comparative study of Illinois’s and South Carolina’s formal state penal systems in the fifty years after the Civil War. Henry Kamerling argues that although punishment was racially inflected both during Reconstruction and after, shared, nonracial factors defined both states' penal systems throughout this period. The similarities in the lived experiences of inmates in both states suggest that the popular focus on the racial characteristics of southern punishment has shielded us from an examination of important underlying factors that prove just as central—if not more so—in shaping the realities of crime and punishment throughout the United States.


Kamerling interrogates the question of whether the southern penal system of the Reconstruction era and Gilded Age was fundamentally different from that of the North. The result is a balanced and quite elegant story.

Rebecca McLennan, University of California, Berkeley

"Detailing the way class and capital played out in the experience of convicts in post—Civil War America, this remarkably interesting book offers a new lens through which to understand the structural conditions within which power and resistance operate in prison. Kamerling’s riveting analysis of prisons in Illinois and South Carolina complicates traditional understandings of North-South differences in punishment."

Austin Sarat, Amherst College

Extremely informative and well written, Capital and Convict will be a valued addition to any library, especially those supporting history, sociology, or criminology and criminal justice programs. It could serve as a resource for research or as assigned reading for graduate seminars concerning historical correctional practices in the US. Summing Up: Highly recommended.


About the Author: 

Henry Kamerling is Professor of History at Seattle University.

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