cover image American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration

American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration

Benjamin D. Weber. New Press, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-620-97590-9

Historian Weber connects the histories of mass incarceration and American imperialism in his wide-ranging and innovative debut. Noting that in the 19th century, the connection between America’s domestic treatment of Black and Native residents and the nation’s imperialism abroad was already clear (after Reconstruction, “many Black newspapers began increasingly to equate the denial of rights and white violence in the United States to a form of colonial rule itself”), he highlights how modern mass incarceration has its origins in the late 19th– and early 20th–century penal colonies founded during the U.S. occupations of the Philippines and Panama, and during the ongoing domestic Indian Wars. Fighters who resisted imperial rule were separated from their communities and interned in open-air prisons, such as Iwahig Penal Colony on the Philippine island of Palawan, which held Filipino rebels, and McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary off the coast of Washington State, which held Black, Native, Mexican, and white immigrant radicals. Weber traces other lines of connection between mass incarceration and imperialism, such as the post-Reconstruction South’s convict labor system designed to bring Black men back into forced servitude, which was later exported to Panama. Throughout, Weber shows how these methods of incarceration traversed the border in unexpected ways, making a clear case for seeing them as part of one continuous project. It’s an eye-opening and fresh perspective on a pair of hot-button issues. (Oct.)