A Wall Is Just a Wall: The Permeability of the Prison in the Twentieth-Century United States

Regular price $ 29.95

by Reiko Hillyer

Duke University Press

2/13/2024, paperback

SKU: 9781478030133


Throughout the twentieth century, even the harshest prison systems in the United States were rather porous. Incarcerated people were regularly released from prison for Christmas holidays; the wives of incarcerated men could visit for seventy-two hours relatively unsupervised; and governors routinely commuted the sentences of people convicted of murder. By the 1990s, these practices had become rarer as politicians and the media-in contrast to corrections officials-described the public as potential victims who required constant protection against the threat of violence.

In A Wall Is Just a Wall Reiko Hillyer focuses on gubernatorial clemency, furlough, and conjugal visits to examine the origins and decline of practices that allowed incarcerated people to transcend prison boundaries. Illuminating prisoners' lived experiences as they suffered, critiqued, survived, and resisted changing penal practices, she shows that the current impermeability of the prison is a recent, uneven, and contested phenomenon. By tracking the "thickening" of prison walls, Hillyer historicizes changing ideas of risk, the growing bipartisan acceptance of permanent exile and fixing the convicted at the moment of their crime as a form of punishment, and prisoners' efforts to resist.


"Drawing on meticulous research and amplifying the voices of prisoners and their families and advocates, A Wall Is Just a Wall is materialist history at its best. Reiko Hillyer's beautifully narrated historical lessons and analyses of the contested sites of clemency, conjugal visitation, and furlough policies spur us to newly imagine the porosity of prison walls and, ultimately, prison abolition as justice long overdue." -- Sora Y. Han, author of Letters of the Law: Race and the Fantasy of Colorblindness in American Law

"In this smart and urgent history, Reiko Hillyer tracks the building of mass incarceration through assaults on the mobility and relationships of incarcerated people. A Wall is Just a Wall is a must-read for anyone who cares about how we got our current prison state and how to build something better." -- Dan Berger, author of The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States

About the Author:

Reiko Hillyer is Associate Professor of History at Lewis & Clark College and the author of Designing Dixie: Tourism, Memory, and Urban Space in the New South.