The Carceral City

Slavery and the Making of Mass Incarceration in New Orleans, 1803-1930

By John Bardes

428 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 halftones, 1 map, 17 graphs, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7818-4
    Published: April 2024
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7817-7
    Published: April 2024
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7819-1
    Published: March 2024

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Americans often assume that slave societies had little use for prisons and police because slaveholders only ever inflicted violence directly or through overseers. Mustering tens of thousands of previously overlooked arrest and prison records, John K. Bardes demonstrates the opposite: in parts of the South, enslaved and free people were jailed at astronomical rates. Slaveholders were deeply reliant on coercive state action. Authorities built massive slave prisons and devised specialized slave penal systems to maintain control and maximize profit. Indeed, in New Orleans—for most of the past half-century, the city with the highest incarceration rate in the United States—enslaved people were jailed at higher rates during the antebellum era than are Black residents today. Moreover, some slave prisons remained in use well after Emancipation: in these forgotten institutions lie the hidden origins of state violence under Jim Crow.

With powerful and evocative prose, Bardes boldly reinterprets relations between slavery and prison development in American history. Racialized policing and mass incarceration are among the gravest moral crises of our age, but they are not new: slavery, the prison, and race are deeply interwoven into the history of American governance.

About the Author

John K. Bardes is assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University.
For more information about John Bardes, visit the Author Page.


"Exceptionally well written, both smart and smooth. Although a history of Louisiana institutions, it is far more engaging, through its use of primary sources, than the bulk of the scholarship on punishment and incarceration."—Jeff Forret, Lamar University

"Bardes's book is poised to make an important contribution to our understanding of criminal justice, state formation, and slavery—and how they related to each other. With so much of the work on American mass incarceration focused on the twentieth century, The Carceral City will shift our focus back to the nineteenth century, when the first of what Bardes calls two eras of mass incarceration occurred."—Adam Malka, University of Oklahoma