Sara Benson, The Prison of Democracy: Race, Leavenworth, and the Culture of Law (University of California Press, 2019).

AuthorChavez, Ernest K.

Sara Benson, The Prison of Democracy: Race, Leavenworth, and the Culture of Law (University of California Press, 2019)

At a time when national discourse surrounding mass incarceration is becoming increasingly critical, Sara Bensons The Prison of Democracy examines how American sovereignty is deeply intertwined with punishment and the prison institution. The book's focal point is United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, the nation's first and oldest federal prison. Within the first few pages, Benson guides the reader through a bizarre yet fascinating discussion about Leavenworth's architecture, purposefully designed to replicate the White House, as displayed on the cover of the book: "In imitating the capitol, Leavenworth created an icon ... one of the ultimate monuments of American democracy, yet contained freedom's inverse on its inside" (2). It is this idea of "freedom's inverse" that becomes crucial to the text. And while The Prison of Democracy may initially appear as a case study of Leavenworth, the level of historical analysis reveals it to be much more than that. Rather than focusing solely on the singularity of this penitentiary, Leavenworth is taken up as an object of study for understanding the rise, expansion, and consolidation of federal governmental power, inaugurated by the right to punish.

Across each of its four chapters, The Prison of Democracy locates Leavenworth within key historical moments of an emergent federal carceral capacity--the formalization of legal deprivation and civil death as democracy's mode of punishment par excellence; the securitization of American sovereignty through the elimination and dispossession of Native tribes within the settler colonial state; the establishment of a federal politics of punishment against the regional and local practices of free and slave states leading up to the civil war; and the emergence of Reconstruction's racialized penitentiary system which took command over Black freedom in the wake of formal emancipation. Benson reconstructs Leavenworth's history by tracing a range of archival evidence, or what is referred to as "the state's paper trail": original blueprints of the prison, fabric samples, prison siren cards, photographs, letters, memoirs, oral histories, and documented records of resistance (10). This archive traces how a once disorganized federal jurisdiction that was scattered across multiple state borders and local regions, could ultimately congeal under a single...

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