Many Kinds of Prison: Charles Dickens on American Incarceration and Slavery

Diana C. Archibald


When the famous British novelist Charles Dickens arrived in North America in 1842, he came at an ideal time to examine the effects of the first wave of penal reform and prison building. His eye-witness account offers valuable insight into American incarceration practices. Taking a stand on the debate over what form incarceration ought to take, Dickens lands squarely in the camp of those supporting the Congregate or Auburn System, a type of penitentiary that allowed inmates to be with each other by day, performing work silently but in proximity to other human beings. Dickens opposed the misguided Separate or Pennsylvania System which enforced utter isolation through almost perpetual solitary confinement. Dickens not only exposes the cruelty of this system but he illuminates the cruelty of American slavery, yet another form of imprisonment. Most importantly, Dickens exposes the special brand of hypocrisy born of American exceptionalism that he discovers on his trip and lambasts the young republic for its blind boasts about ideals Dickens thought were not being upheld: Freedom and Justice. Dickens’s travel book, American Notes, contains markers that point toward the 20th- and 21st-century future of mass incarceration, and his powerful literary journalism is still relevant today.

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