BOOK CORNER: New book examines history of prison industrial complex 

By Marissa Wells

Contributing Writer

“Freeman’s Challenge: The Murder That Shook America’s Original Prison for Profit,” by Robin Bernstein, is a book about murder, greed, race and the true origins of prison for profit. It delves into the narrative of William Freeman, an African-American teenager convicted of a crime in 1840.

“I stumbled across William Freeman’s story while I was looking for something else,” said the author. “Once I learned about Freeman’s life — before, during and after his incarceration — I was hooked.”

Bernstein recognized the importance of telling Freeman’s story to the masses. 

“For a century and a half, William Freeman has been dismissed as a madman who killed for no reason,” Bernstein said. “The more I researched him, the more I realized that he committed murder as a challenge to the earliest system of prison for profit in the United States; his message is even more important today than it was in the 1840s.”

“Freeman’s Challenge” will educate readers by offering insight into the history of the prison industrial complex and the significant role that northern states played in it.

“Some excellent and important thinkers, including Michelle Alexander and Ava DuVernay, have shown that the South used convict labor to resurrect slavery after the 13th Amendment,” Bernstein said. “This is true, but the South was imitating the North. In fact, the North invented ‘slavery by another name’ half a century earlier, in the context of the end of northern, not southern, slavery.”

“Freeman’s Challenge” reveals the complexities of Freeman’s life and the harsh realities that Black people have historically faced in the prison industrial complex.

“From the earliest inceptions of prisons in this country, people have believed that they were necessary and inevitable, and they weren’t,” Bernstein said. “My hope is that people will read Freeman’s challenge to the prison in his time and be inspired to challenge the prison industrial complex in our own time.”

In addition to being an author and historian, Bernstein is the Dillon Professor of American History and professor of African and African American Studies and of Studies of Women, Gender, & Sexuality at Harvard University. For more information about the author and her work, visit scholar.harvard.edu/robinbernstein or X and Instagram @robinmbernstein.

“Freeman’s Challenge: The Murder That Shook America’s Original Prison for Profit” is available for $27.50 (hardcover) or $26.99 (electronic publication) via Amazon, online booksellers, and book stores. 

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