This course examines the history of the prison system in the United States. It traces the evolution from rehabilitative to punitive justice, and pinpoints the origins of privatization. The course moves through nineteenth-century prison tourism, the turn-of-the-century Progressive impulse on jails, and the twentieth-century prisoners’ rights movement. Throughout the history, underpinnings of racism emerge in legislation, prison reports, and public reactions to incarceration. We will hear the voices of prisoners who doubled as activists, alongside debates by politicians, business interests, and the public. These multiple perspectives will allow us to examine both prison culture and the impact of prisons on American culture. The course will conclude with contemporary conversations about prison abolition and ban-the-box campaigns. By examining the prison as an institution that is central to the American identity, we will make sense of its role in larger political and social debates.