The invention of mass incarceration

VIDEO: In the United States today, prisons are an integral part of the criminal justice system, but they are a relatively modern way to deal with crime. How have society’s attitudes towards punishment changed over time and why is this important? Join us for a free online event on Wednesday, March 23.

Watch the replay of this event held on March 23, 2022

Prisons were once seen as a sign of progress, a victory for public health that was more humane than the overcrowded, disease-ridden prisons and harsh physical punishment meted out on the city green. Yet today prisons face a crisis of legitimacy and are seen by many policymakers and reformers as bloated and inhumane institutions. Even though academic work suggests they are ineffective in making us safer, society has come to take the need for prisons and mass incarceration for granted. How did we come here? How have our attitudes toward prison, which some researchers date to the time of the American Revolution, changed over time? Are prisons intended to punish, to rehabilitate, or both? What is reasonable to ask of prisons and are they functioning as intended? How is incarceration experienced by those who are incarcerated?

Watch this discussion with a formerly incarcerated writer and sociologist to learn how the history of prisons can inform our understanding of mass incarceration today.


Ashley Rubin, University of Hawaii at Mānoa

Ashley Rubin studies the intersections of criminology, history, sociology, and socio-legal studies and focuses on the dynamics of penal change throughout United States history. She seeks to understand why societies punish in different ways at different times and places in history and how penal change is possible – what drives a society to adopt new penal practices or abandon old ones. Rubin is the author of two books, including The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary and America’s Origins s Modern penal system, 1829-1913and she is currently writing a book on the history of American prisons.

Morgan Godvin, JSTOR Daily

Morgan Godvin is an engagement editor with JSTOR Daily, assigned to the American Prison Newspapers collection. This primary source archive contains centuries of digitized newspapers produced by and for incarcerated people. Godvin is formerly incarcerated and now devotes herself to the intersection of journalism, history and mass incarceration. She is a 2022 Bard Prison Initiative Public Health Fellow and recent graduate of the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health.


Emily Underwood, Science Content Producer, Virtual Events, Knowable magazine

Emily has been covering science for over a decade, including as a neuroscience reporter for Science. She holds a bachelor’s degree in science and technology studies from Brown University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. In 2016-2017, Emily was a Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism, and her reporting has won national awards, including a 2018 National Academies Keck Futures Initiatives Communications Award for Magazine Writing.


This event is part of an ongoing series of live events and science journalism from Knowable magazine and Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the advancement of science and the benefit of society. Significant funding for knowable comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

This event is co-produced with JSTOR Daily, an online publication that contextualizes current affairs with scholarship. Drawing on JSTOR’s rich digital library of scholarly journals, books, images, primary sources, research reports, and other materials, JSTOR Daily stories provide context – historical, scientific, literary, political and otherwise – for understanding our world.


More than Knowable magazine

More than JSTOR Daily

Related Articles from the Annual Review

Other Resources


This article originally appeared in
Knowable magazine, an independent journalism venture of Annual Reviews. Register to receive the newsletter.