One world in penology? American penal reformers and the international sphere

Much has been written about the history of punishment in the United States, yet historians rarely acknowledge the international dimension of American penal practices. This article – which serves as the foundation for my doctoral dissertation – addresses this lacuna by exploring the complex connections between domestic and international penal policy. Thus, I examine how American prison administrators, reformers, and scholars participated in, influenced, and were affected by international penal discourse and international affairs during the years before and after World War II, a key period of development for the American penal system.

This paper addresses several key questions: What exactly was the role of American penal practitioners, reformers, and scholars in promoting an international penal reform movement? What did they hope to achieve by participating in an international prison organization? And how did they understand the relationship between penal policy at home and events abroad during this critical time? In order to address these questions, I conducted research in 2009–2010 in archival collections at the United Nations, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Sam Houston State University of Texas, and elsewhere. These archives offer rich material for focusing on the lives of individual Americans involved in domestic and international penal matters – as well as their ideas about crime, punishment, and the possibilities of international cooperation.

Specifically, my paper follows the careers of James Bennett and Sanford Bates, two men who in 1929 founded a key American penal administrative body, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and directed it for the next fifty years. During this time, both men also played a central role in international penal reform. In particular, they participated in the International Penal and Penitentiary Commission (IPPC), the central body for international cooperation on penal matters since the late nineteenth century. Indeed, Bates and Bennett remained fervent supporters of the IPPC until they attended the organization’s conference in Berlin in 1935. It was at this meeting that Nazi participants derailed the IPPC’s long history of supporting humanitarian and liberal-minded reform. Despite this traumatic experience, Bates and Bennett helped to guide the FBP through the difficulties of WWII, forge a new international penal reform organization within the United Nations, and reshape American prisons in light of new domestic and international challenges. Thus, I show that American penal administrators’ experience and memory of the Progressive Era, Nazism, and the Second World War led them to re-imagine the benefits and pitfalls of international cooperation for decades to come. I also show that shifting concerns over state sovereignty, internal domestic politics, national strategic interests, international threats, and the strength of international organizations continually shaped their efforts at home and abroad. Not surprisingly, national identities, religious affiliations, ethnocentric prejudices, geographic boundaries, and a host of other factors complicated their efforts during this time.

With this context in mind, my paper traces American penal administrators’ roots in Progressive-Era reform before exploring the events surrounding the 1936 Berlin conference. Their experience at the conference, and the subsequent challenges of the Second World War, made American practitioners wary of the IPPC but inspired them to think in newly internationalist terms, linking the development of American penal practices with the fate of democracy abroad. Next, I examine how American administrators participated in international reform in the post-war period. Bates and Bennett traveled to Germany following the war and helped direct this rebuilding effort. This experience led them to imagine a newly energized international penal organization that gave Americans new influence. Their memory of 1935 and their newfound influence led them to dissolve the IPPC, moving its activities within the newly created United Nations. I follow their discussions with their European, Latin American, and Asian counterparts in the IPPC to in order to examine their evolving goals during this period. Finally, I show how their priorities changed after the United Nations became consolidated. Indeed, as American administrators grew increasingly confident in the achievements of American penal policy in the 1950s, they also became increasingly optimistic about the possibilities for international cooperation. Meanwhile, they steered international prison reform away from the overtly political controversies plaguing other bodies with the United Nations, instead heralding the supposed neutrality of technocratic expertise. Yet I argue that as American administrators promoted their vision of penal reform and international cooperation they often overlooked the brutal realities of American prisons and also avoided difficult questions about how international prison reform would be enforced given national differences. These missteps would ultimately weaken the benefits of an international reform body and contribute to the crises of the American penal system several decades later.

Ultimately, this paper seeks to fill an important historiographical gap by exploring the links between domestic and international penal policy.  But it also addresses other important topics often overlooked in the scholarship on American penal policy and international affairs. In exploring the FBP and the IPPC, my paper examines two key institutions rarely acknowledged in the historiography of American crime and punishment. The direct involvement of American penal administrators in rebuilding German prisons remains almost entirely unacknowledged. Yet this example is only one of many that show just how deeply intertwined domestic penal policy and international affairs remained throughout the twentieth century.  My paper also seeks to approach penal policy and international relations with a broader chronological and geographic lens in order to avoid oversimplifying between cosmopolitan and exceptionalist periods in twentieth-century history.  Instead, my paper shows that American participation in international penal efforts dissolves many of these historiographical oversimplifications. Ultimately, how American penal administrators remembered the 1935 congress, understood the Second World War, and evaluated their domestic penal achievements in subsequent decades led them to re-imagine the benefits and pitfalls of international cooperation in complex ways.