History of Crime and Punishment in America

This series will explore the history of the American criminal justice system from the Colonial Era, when America was a dumping ground for British criminals, to today. Through the histories of institutions and the lives of criminals and victims, law-enforcement officials, and crusading reformers, we will confront issues of class and race and ethnicity, changing definitions of crime and our evolving efforts to deal with it, and the fairness or lack of it in deciding who is to be punished and who walks free.

Some of the characters the film will follow include the handful of earnest Quaker men and women whose belief that strict isolation and ceaseless toil would make two criminals repent of their sins created the nightmarish penitentiary system; two prisoners, one an African American jailed for attempted murder, the other a career criminal from the Lower East Side, who left vivid accounts of what life was like within those prison walls; and the early twentieth century warden who had himself locked up under an assumed name in order to understand what life was like for the men under his charge and then went on to revolutionize the way American prisons were run.

We will look into the real history of the not-so-Wild-West, trace the growth of big-city police forces from their beginnings as thuggish political enforcers and explore the history of vigilantism and lynching that were the special shame of small-town America. And through it all we hope to provide some answers to a single troubling question: Why, after 237 years of independence, are more than two million American men and women incarcerated, the largest prison population on earth?