Reading Megan Comfort’s Doing Time Together as an Early Modernist.

Sometimes I try to lift my head out of the archives and read around in the growing and really awesome new literature on prisons in more recent times. This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about books that deal with the more recently historical experiences of incarceration and how they might relate to our work as early modernists.

Megan Comfort Doing Time Together

Last month I finally got around to reading Megan Comfort’s book, Doing Time Together (Chicago: U. of Chicago, 2008). Don’t be misled by the subtitle, Love and Family in the Shadow of the Prison. Or by what appear at first glance to be happy pictures of couples and young families on the cover (look closer). This is not an gushy story of love conquering all. It is a sharp, disconcerting and provocative analysis of the relationship between two institutions,  the prison on the one hand  and heterosexual romantic/family relationships on the other. We usually think of these as standing in opposition, the warmth of the family vs. the coldness of the jail. But by putting prison and romance into the same frame, Comfort shows that the worlds inside and outside the prison interact in complex ways, and that these two institutions challenge but also in some ways support one another. She asks what prison does to gender roles, and how both gendered conventions and the efforts of women to change those conventions might support the prison as an institution as well as challenge it.

Many of Comfort’s findings are immediately recognizable to me as an early modernist. The boundaries between prison and not-prison turn out to be permeable in both contemporary and early modern contexts. For one thing, then and now, prisoners depend on the labor and money of female partners to meet basic needs, like getting enough food; this is true even though in theory the state now provides for prisoners. Also as true now as it was then is the blurring of lines between the free and the unfree, as female visitors to a prisoner are treated as quasi-prisoners. Comfort describes the ways in which the female partners of prisoners are subjected to prison discipline, changing everything from their wardrobes to their daily schedules, even though not prisoners themselves. She also describes the unpredictable, humiliating delays experienced by women in the Tube, the area of San Quentin where visitors wait, arguing persuasively that people who are treated as if their time not valuable are marked as less than full citizens. As I discussed in a previous post, early modern visitors found their access and egress subject to the whims of turnkeys and keepers. As in modern times, women visiting prison were tarred with the brush of disgrace even though not prisoners themselves: the 18th century reformer Thomas Smith could not hide his disdain for all women who came into contact with the prison:

As vicious women are most dangerous company, and many of them frequent prisons, there is much reason to forbid all women, [except prisoners] from coming into gaols. … Suffering women to lodge in gaol contributes greatly to the dissolute and disorderly lives of many of the prisoners.[1]

The most disconcerting insights in Comfort’s book concern the positive changes in gender roles and family dynamics when men are imprisoned. Women become more independent, men become more sensitive; these are gender-bending reversals of the sort for which most of us would stand up and cheer. But in many ways, Comfort shows, this works to strengthen the prison as an institution by making it indispensable.  In the absence of social services, women use prison to cope with abusive or addicted mates.  And prison authorities use the desire of prisoners to experience family life to regulate the: those that obey and conform may be rewarded with family visits, wherein they can spend two days in a homelike setting with partners and children, a space cleaner and more secure than the actual home of the prisoner and his partner.

Comfort’s analysis cannot in every instance apply directly to early modern prisons. For one thing, the gaols I study did not offer social services, addiction treatment, anger-management counseling or much discipline. Also, prison authorities of 18th century would envy the control that modern prisons exercise over whether or not prisoners have a family life. It was normal for entire families to move into prison. As the reformer John Howard groused in his State of the Prisons

Debtors crowd the gaols (especially those in London) with their wives and children. There are often by this means, ten or twelve people in a middle sized room; increasing the danger of infection, and corrupting the morals of children.[2]

Despite these differences between then and now, Comfort’s book provides a model for attending to gendered narratives and fantasies surrounding the prison, and to the way that prison changes gender, which early modernists could definitely follow.

Reading Doing Time Together helps me think about the strange story that John Howard told in his 1791 Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe. It strikingly puts romance and imprisonment into the same frame. In the midst of his tour of prisons in the west of England, John Howard heard a story that so moved him that broke from the usual dry recitation  of numbers of prisoners, dimensions of rooms, salaries of keepers and the like to share a true tale of redemptive love. At the High Gaol in Exeter,

There were three women in their sick room, and I was surprised at finding with them a shoe-maker at work at his trade. On inquiring into the cause, I was informed that he was the husband of one of the women who was committed September 1st, 1785, and on the 20th of March 1786 was sentenced to be transported for seven years, for stealing a calf’s skin. In November 1786 she was ordered to the hulk at Plymouth, but on account of lameness contracted by a fever in the gaol, she could not be removed: a fine child, which is her fifteenth, was born in the prison. Her husband persisted in declaring he would never leave her, but would go abroad with her. Such constancy of affection in prisons is very uncommon in men, though I have frequently found it in the other sex. But by the kindness of Lord Sydney, the woman received a free pardon Dec. 27th, 1787: and I since learned that this couple are useful and worthy members of the community.[3]

The fact that the prisoner in the couple is the woman makes the story a little unusual, but many elements are recognizable after a reading of Megan Comfort’s book. One can draw a line from Howard to the reformers and prisoners who in our own time successfully advocated for the policy of allowing the family visits, described above: the policy was meant to be a recognition of the prisoner’s humanity, and based on the belief that a prisoner who maintained his ties with the outside world stood a better chance of rehabilitation. Howard stands at the origin of this tradition of humanistic penology: he wants to show that prisoners are human, and that a properly ordered family life can redeem a prisoner. It is striking that for Howard, as now, imprisonment requires some temporary bending of gender norms, but in a way that allows the patriarchal family to be redeemed rather than destroyed. The husband Howard describes is slightly feminized in that his affection goes beyond that of most men, but he is still plying his trade and fathering children. And in the end, presumably, the world will be turned right again, the couple becoming “useful and worthy members of the community.”  Howard’s story sketches out a fantasy for what a reformed penal system could achieve, in harmony with a reformed patriarchy. That fantasy is still with us.

What is even more striking in Howard’s narrative is its quick but dismissive acknowledgement of the reverse situation: The ‘other sex,’ we are told, more frequently displays the “constancy of affection” that Howard praises here in the case of one man, yet those women remain nameless and faceless in Howard’s account. He does not bother telling their stories. In fact, his attitude to women who follow male partners to prison is, as we saw above, cranky.

In this sense, Howard stands in another tradition as well, the tradition of just not seeing the women who visit, nurture and also control male partners in and through the carceral system. Why, exactly, these women have been so hard to see is an important question in its own right. Meanwhile, thanks to Megan Comfort, we can now begin to see those women in our own time. The female partners of past prisoners are still awaiting a similarly perceptive chronicler.


[1] William D. Smith, State of the Gaols in London, Westminster and the Borough of Southwark (London: J. Bew, 1776), p. 62

[2] John Howard, The state of the prisons in England and Wales, with preliminary observations, and an account of some foreign prisons (Warrington: William Eyres, 1777), pp. 33-34

[3] John Howard, An account of the principal lazarettos in Europe; with various papers relative to the plague: Together with Further Observations on Some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals; and Additional Remarks on the Present State of Those in Great Britain and Ireland  (J. Johnson, D. Dilly & T. Caddell, 1791), pp. 185-86


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