The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith, will appear from Yale University Press in September of 2009. The book examines the history of the U.S. prison system and its imaginative life in nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture. This site is a forum for conversation about the book and its themes.
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 explore not only the sprawling prison system of the twenty-first century, including the scandals of American war prisons overseas, but also the long, sometimes tortured history of jails, penitentiaries, plantations, and other dark places that have haunted the new world, with its promise of liberty for all.