American Purgatory

Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration

A groundbreaking look at how America exported mass incarceration around the globe, from a rising young historian

American Purgatory will forever change how we understand the rise of mass incarceration. It will forever change how we understand this country.” —Clint Smith, bestselling author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

In this explosive new book, historian Benjamin Weber reveals how the story of American prisons is inextricably linked to the expansion of American power around the globe.

A vivid work of hidden history that spans the wars to subjugate Native Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, the conquest of the western territories, and the creation of an American empire in Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, American Purgatory reveals how “prison imperialism”—the deliberate use of prisons to control restive, subject populations—is written into our national DNA, extending through to our modern era of mass incarceration. Weber also uncovers a surprisingly rich history of prison resistance, from the Seminole Chief Osceola to Assata Shakur—one that invites us to rethink the scope of America’s long freedom struggle.

Weber’s brilliantly documented text is supplemented by original maps highlighting the global geography of prison imperialism, as well as illustrations of key figures in this history by the celebrated artist Ayo Scott. For readers of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, here is a bold new effort to tell the full story of prisons and incarceration—at home and abroad—as well as a powerful future vision of a world without prisons.


“Masterfully researched and written, American Purgatory takes the history of mass incarceration to an entirely new level, as it connects centuries of American expansion and conquest on the North American continent and overseas to the planning logics and actual practices of prison systems. Benjamin Weber’s global perspective on ‘prison imperialism’ as well as prisoners’ resistance has produced a field-defining book.”
—Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Harvard University
American Purgatory shows how racialized criminalization and incarceration have been the key mechanisms of state building at home and imperialism abroad.”
—George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness
“A detailed and passionate account of the practice and responses to U.S. prison imperialism in the past that serves as an intellectual grounding for those engaged in the unfinished work of decolonization.”
—V.P. Franklin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Education, University of California, Riverside
“An important contribution to strengthening our prison abolition and anti-colonial movements and our refusal to be defined by criminalization.”
—Pam Fadem, California Coalition for Women Prisoners
American Purgatory is the sort of book reactionary politicians and organizations are trying to ban. It’s full of evidence that many of the attitudes and conditions prevalent in this country from its founding were racist, bigoted, even genocidal.”
The Arts Fuse
“Historian Weber connects the histories of mass incarceration and American imperialism in his wide-ranging and innovative debut. . . . It’s an eye-opening and fresh perspective on a pair of hot-button issues.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This outstanding book exposes the surprising connection between America’s current age of mass incarceration and the imperial prisons of the past. Showing how racism and colonialism shaped government efforts to incapacitate people who resisted the incursions of U.S. foreign policy, Weber highlights the urgency of understanding the relation between decolonization, antiracism, and the possibility of prison abolition.”
—Vincent Brown, author of Tacky’s Revolt
“A must-read, American Purgatory makes clear that truly understanding the depth of today’s carceral crisis means recognizing it as a global apparatus—one that has always informed how this nation maintains white supremacy as well as manages acts of resistance and self-determination not simply within its own borders, but around the world.”
—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Blood in the Water
“An international history of the U.S. prison problem, guided by the voices of those who never let captivity break their global freedom dreams.”
—Dan Berger, author of Stayed on Freedom
“A timely consideration of the geopolitical role of American prisons.”
Kirkus Reviews
American Purgatory seeks to unite the history of the prison, the history of slavery, and the history of American empire, arguing that they are bound together by carceral violence and by the resistance to it. The climb out of the American purgatory is at least as steep as Dante’s mountain, with no guarantee of reaching Paradise. But we have Weber’s book, a more comprehensive map than any yet made, with paths upward marked out by those whose knowledge was earned by hard experience.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
American Purgatory is a tour de force that brings together the history of racial exploitation and colonialism over four centuries, as well as the various forms of opposition that consistently emerged in response to punitive developments. In doing so, Benjamin Weber provides a critical new framework that can help us envision a more equitable and just world.”
—Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

News and Reviews


Read an op-ed by American Purgatory author Benjamin Weber in TIME about the critical ned to teach the history of mass incarceration.

Law & Disorder

Listen to an interview with Benjamin Weber about American Purgatory on Law & Disorder.

Los Angeles Review of Books

Read a review of American Purgatory in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Appeal

Read an excerpt from Benjamin Weber’s American Purgatory in The Appeal.

Goodreads Reviews