The article attempts to make the difference in timing between Europe and the United States with respect to the rise of imprisonment understandable. It starts with Europe, taking Amsterdam as its main example. As a punitive institution, the prison became well-established in various European countries during the seventeenth century. The penal prison, holding mainly condemned criminals, emerged in the eighteenth century. These developments are a function of ongoing processes of state formation. The article next establishes that no true prisons existed in Colonial America. On that Continent, the take-off of imprisonment came after 1800, notably, as David Rothman argued, in the 1820s and 1830s and only in the North. This is understandable, since by then North-East America had reached a stage of monopolization of violence comparable to that in seventeenth-century Europe. Finally, it is argued that the well-known divergence of preferences in the nineteenth century, with Europe opting in majority for the Philadelphia system and American states for the Auburn system, can be explained with reference to the early modern situation: the Auburn system essentially resembled that of the early modern prison-workhouse with forced labor, whereas Europeans wanted to experiment with a new régime of mind control which they found in the Philadelphia system. Suggested further reading: Pieter Spierenburg, The prison experience. Disciplinary institutions and their inmates in early modern Europe. New Brunswick, NJ (Rutgers UP) 1991 (reprinted by Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

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Journal of Social History
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC)

Spierenburg, P. (1987). From Amsterdam to Auburn: an explanation for the rise of the prison in seventeenth-century Holland and nineteenth-century America. Journal of Social History, 20(3), 439–461. Retrieved from