Two features make the U.S. history of punishment exceptional. First, the U.S. massively increased its prevalence of imprisonment starting from about 1980. Second, the U.S. had a relatively high concentration of punishment on men in the nineteenth century and did not greatly increase its concentration of punishment of men in the two decades after World War II. The post-1980 massive increase in imprisonment is a well-recognized feature of U.S. punishment history. In contrast, the early, exceptionally high U.S. ratio of men to women in prison and the relative stability of the U.S. prisoner sex ratio is hardly known.
Early in the nineteenth century, the ratio of men to women in prisons and penitentiaries was much higher in the U.S. than in European countries. Official French visitors to U.S. state prisons about 1832 noted:
the only certain, incontestable fact which we have remarked in the United States, and which may offer an opportunity for comparison, is the peculiar and extraordinary morality of the women belonging to the white race. Out of one hundred prisoners in the United States, we find but four women, whilst with us there are twenty in a hundred.^
An English official who visited U.S. state prisons about a year later offered a similar observation:
Few circumstances connected with this subject impress a visitor more forcibly than the small number of females to be found in the penitentiaries of the United States. …there prevails a strong indisposition to prosecute, especially if the offender be not a woman of colour. Magistrates are also reluctant to commit women from the circumstances of there not being any suitable prisons for their reception.^
A leading U.S. scholar of crime and punishment in 1833 concurred with these views:
In all countries women commit less crimes than men, but in none is the disproportion of criminals of the two sexes so great as in ours.^
Specific data indicate the U.S. had a much higher ratio of males to females in prison than did other countries. About 1837, the Belgian government sought to construct at Liege a penitentiary capable of holding 300 prisoners – 240 males and 60 females.^ In Britain, the Penitentiary Act of 1779 (19 Geo. 3, c. 74) directed the construction of two national penitentiaries, one for 600 male convicts and one for 300 female convicts. The national penitentiary at Millbank, London, was intended in 1818 to hold 600 males and 400 females.^ In 1840, Millbank held two male prisoners per female prisoner. In contrast, U.S. state prisons in 1840 held twenty-two male prisoners per female prisoners.
The relatively high ratio of males to females in early nineteenth-century U.S. prisons wasn’t an effect of the distribution of life-disposing punishment. In the U.S. from 1825 to 1845, the ratio of males to females executed was 14.7. That’s close to the execution sex ratio of 17.3 in England and Wales during that period. England and Wales during this period was also transporting convicts to Australia. The sex ratio among the transported convicts was 7.4 males to females. Many more persons were transported than were executed, hence substitution of these punishments for imprisonment would in aggregate raise the ratio of men to women in prison. Nonetheless, the ratio of men to women in prison was much lower in England and Wales than it was in the U.S.
Punishment in the U.S. focused increasingly on men through to the mid-twentieth century. Good national statistics for punishment by sex are available for the U.S. only from 1880. From 1880, 97% or more of the persons absent in punishment in the U.S. were in prison. Hence absence in punishment is nearly equivalent to persons in prison. The sex ratio among U.S. persons absent in punishment was about 11 in 1880. That was about twice as high as the sex ratio in punishment in England and Wales at that time. The U.S. sex ratio in punishment rose steadily from 1880 to 22 males per female in punishment in 1933. Execution, while accounting for only a small share of absence in punishment, also focused more extensively on men. The U.S. from 1846 to 2010 executed 90 males per female, a much higher sex ratio than the corresponding statistic of 25 for England and Wales.
The exceptional history of the U.S. sex distribution of punishment may be related to the exceptional U.S. history of communication. Compared to European countries, the United States experienced relatively early development of deliberative democracy.^ Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion were central to the American colonists’ struggle against the British government and to their relations with each other. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly expressed those values. Moreover, the U.S. Declaration of Independence asserted as self-evident truths that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. These principles spurred democratic deliberation. The federal structure of the U.S. government, with non-enumerated powers reserved to the states, allowed considerable political experimentation and political diversity as well as tension between state and national governments. In addition, plentiful land and good opportunities to form new settlements gave persons opportunities to exit from communities where entrenched institutions and established social hierarchies made deliberation unprofitable. The early American republic thus provided propitious circumstances for personally significant discussions of common life. Those discussions included extensive discussions about punishment.
The U.S. electoral franchise was broader before World War I and expanded less in the mid-twentieth century than did the electoral franchise elsewhere. In 1790, about a quarter of adults in the U.S. had the right to vote. In England and Wales, the corresponding figure was 8%. Across the first half of the nineteenth century, U.S. states largely eliminated property and tax-paying qualifications for voting.^ By 1919, 46% of persons in the U.S. ages 21 and over had full voting rights. This figure includes women who lived in states that had fully enfranchised woman (27% of women), but excludes non-citizens (11% of adults) and blacks living in the south (7% of adults). The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1920) increased the fully enfranchised share of adults to 82%. These figures do not subtract disenfranchised felons, overwhelmingly male, who increased to 2.5% of adults by 2004. The mid-twentieth-century increase in the U.S. electoral franchise was significantly smaller than the increase from 28% to 97% for the British electoral franchise from 1918 to 1929.
The exceptional history of U.S. imprisonment is associated with an exceptional history of communication and public deliberation. The U.S. was an early-nineteenth-century leader in the development of communication media and democracy. The U.S. also led the early nineteenth-century practice of attempting to suppress completely prisoners’ communication. The U.S. had an exceptionally high ratio of men to women in prison early in the nineteenth century. Sharp increases in the electoral franchise in other countries in the mid-twentieth century are associated with large increases in the ratio of men to women in prison in those countries. Democratic development that does not increase the engagement of prisoners in communication with non-prisoners seems to skew the sex composition of prisoners toward men.