This paper draws on literary scholar Susan Ryan’s work to show how Americans worked out national as well as racial identities through benevolent activity, including forms of reformative incarceration. Reformers operated as true citizens by sustaining themselves and providing for others. Recipients, on the other hand, functioned as people in need. Ryan argues that benevolent activists ascribed need to entire groups of people. As a result, “the categories of blackness, Indianness, and Irishness…came to signify need itself.” Elite Americans thereby “raced” need, assigning essential difference to populations they sought to relieve. Ryan’s work on racialized need can help us understand the connections between Christianity, race, and mass incarceration. I explore how one nineteenth-century military prison—and the disciplinary institutions later modeled on it—was created in direct response to presumed (and raced) need among Native Americans. I also consider how Christian reformers obscured and concealed the racialized nature of this institution—and how, in that avoidance, they came to sanctify mass incarceration for racial minorities. Finally, I look at two incarcerated Native artists’ drawings to show how people caught up in racialized renderings of their need have something else to say about who they are and what prison is.
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