“Certain kinds of black men’s stories are ever in vogue, stories that offer the easy paradigm of criminality and putative redemption.” This warning, from the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s essay “A Black Man Says ‘Sorbet,’ ” was aimed at the prison memoirist. It challenged and haunted me as I wrote my own memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. What I wanted to say about the eight years I spent in prison (from the ages of 16 to 24) was inevitably tied up in stories that have become all too familiar today, when one in three black boys in the United States can expect to go to prison. Assuming the role of redeemed witness to the chaos of incarceration poses a danger: You risk reinforcing the stereotype of black criminality and fueling a notion that the worthy will emerge from the hell of imprisonment the better for it.

Random House

Enter Austin Reed, the author of the oldest known prison memoir by an African American. He was locked up as a 10-year-old boy in the early 1830s, in the nation’s first juvenile reformatory, the House of Refuge, on New York City’s Bowery. By the time he finished writing his account, probably in 1858, he was behind bars in upstate New York, one of the small fraction of black inmates in a then overwhelmingly white prison population. In and out of prison, he wasn’t writing as a redeemed witness, nor was he describing a penal system as racialized as the modern criminal-justice process has become. Reed—likely named after Austin Steward, the abolitionist and author of Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, who lived in Rochester, New York, while Reed was growing up there—wrote from the perspective of a freeborn black man acutely aware of the whip’s power to destroy humanity. In The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, completed about five years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Reed reveals the stark reality beneath a comparison that has become a rhetorical staple: the shared logic of prison and slavery. His account is a reminder of the power of prison, despite whatever rehabilitative designs lawmakers and administrators may endorse at different times, to break human beings.

Reed’s manuscript, which was written in one bound journal and two hand-sewn sheaves of paper, had been privately held for 150 years before being acquired recently by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Caleb Smith, a Yale English professor, served as Reed’s editor, turning 304 wrenching and evocative pages, written in neat cursive prose that lacked consistent punctuation and paragraphing, into the current edition. Smith also headed a team of researchers who tracked down Reed’s origins—he was born to a middle-class family—and verified the authenticity of the material. Two letters in the same cursive, dated 1895 and found in the House of Refuge records, proved crucial in connecting the author of the newly discovered manuscript to an actual person. A man named Reed had written the superintendent, asking him to “look over some of your old record books and See if you can find my name in any of them.” Even 60 years after being sent there, Reed had his inmate number fresh in mind: 1221. Nearly 20 years have passed since I was given my own state number, and I still know it like my name: 251534.

The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict reads like two books, very much of their period and yet also startlingly familiar—the jolt even greater after I went to the Beinecke Library, where the sight of the yellowing pages was a vivid reminder that they predate slavery’s demise. The first book chronicles Reed’s boyhood in the House of Refuge and its mode is part Dickens, part fugitive-slave narrative. The second covers his time in New York’s Auburn State Prison, which was among the first penitentiaries in the world when it was constructed in 1816, and became a model for America’s growing penal system. Through them both runs the deathbed prayer of Reed’s father (a barber) that Austin, then 6, might be “kept from all the snares and temptations of the world.” Reed returns to the prayer repeatedly, and the theme of the absent father unable to offer guidance echoes down to today.

The crime that lands Reed in the House of Refuge raises the specter of slavery even before institutional walls close in. He is indentured to a local farmer as punishment after he and some friends cut down another farmer’s fruit trees. Worried that Reed is perhaps being sent away to a slave trader, his brother demands (in vain, it seems) to hear from “witnesses that [the farmer] is no slave holder.” (In the free North when Reed was growing up, slave catchers used the Fugitive Slave Act—on the books since 1793, requiring the return of runaway slaves—as a pretense to kidnap black men, women, and children in order to sell them into slavery down South.) Though not a slaveholder, the farmer soon subjects a homesick Reed to the brutality of the lash. The young boy is outraged, recognizing no fairness in the whip, only the violent subjugation that reminds him of slavery. Reed sets fire to the farmhouse and is sent to the House of Refuge.

America’s first juvenile reformatory was an experiment that aimed, at least according to some of its champions, to morally instruct the wayward children of the poor. Reed learns to read at the House of Refuge, taught by a friend whenever the two boys can grab a spare moment, in much the same way that his contemporary Frederick Douglass learned. But the core mission of the House of Refuge was to turn delinquents into obedient laborers. The work—making shoes, chairs, rope mats—was contracted out to local businesses, and the profits supported the institution. The method was to demand hard work, and to administer ruthless beatings to charges who balked, talked, or slept too late. A cat-o’-nine-tails whip held high above Reed’s bleeding back is the dominant image. He names his lashers, and with his many terms for the lash—“little kittens,” “the darling little puss”—he deploys an ironic lyricism to convey all that his childhood lacked. At the same time, his bitter whimsy seems to suggest a hope that humor and beauty can somehow survive in a place that, as Smith writes, Reed sees “mainly as a house of bondage.”

The bold energy to escape can perhaps also survive, or so Reed writes in this first part of his account. He describes several efforts to flee—all evidently made up, or at least Smith finds no records to confirm them—modeling his plight on fugitive slaves’ stories. In one tale, when he and two friends from the House of Refuge make it to the docks, hoping for passage home, the stripes they display aren’t on their prison garb. “There we all three stood, without a shoe to our feet or a cap on our heads, no coats on our backs but a coat of red stripes which the cats had made.” To win his way on board a ship, Reed writes, “I then pulled off my shirt and showed the captain my back.”

Reed’s childhood is barely over when, in 1840, he enters the Auburn State Prison at 17 and the second book—a colder-eyed chronicle of a system unequivocally dedicated to destroying autonomy and dignity—begins. Sentenced this time to two years for larceny, Reed describes his arrival in a scene not so different from one I still vividly remember. “Unlocking the door,” he writes, the guard “jerked it open and order us to go in and lay down on the hard oak floor, without a bed or a blanket to cover us.” In 1996, when I was roughly Reed’s age and, like him, had no idea what lay ahead for me as a teenager in the adult system, a deputy escorted me to a dank and cold solitary cell in the Fairfax County Jail, in Virginia. Pushed in, I was left with a dried-mucus-encrusted concrete slab to sleep on—no pillow, no sheet, only a small blanket.

Gone are Reed’s tales of escape. Instead, horror abounds. The book becomes a systematic accounting of how Auburn State Prison operated during his time there—from the daily work regime to the torturous punishments. Reed immediately takes note of the many familiar faces. “Among eight hundred prisoners, there were over one hundred and fifty that I was well acquainted with and had been boys with me in the House of Refuge.” He makes no claims for his, or his fellow inmates’, innocence: a “sinner,” he calls himself. (The specific sins, which he mostly doesn’t discuss, were a succession of larceny convictions that may well have been the product of the same poverty that left his widowed mother destitute.) But the prison Reed describes isn’t a school of criminality, as many have since suggested—a system perpetuated from within, by incorrigible inmates. It is a school of brutality, run by people unable to imagine their charges as free men.

Enforced work is again in store for Reed at Auburn, which operated like a factory, with a cooper shop, a tool shop, a weave shop, a spin shop, a machine shop, a cabinet shop, a shoe shop, a comb shop, a tailor shop, and a harness shop. Reed describes inmates “rigged in striped clothes of shame and disgrace, a toiling and laboring and bearing the heavy burdens of a hot summer’s day.” He doesn’t argue that crime should go unpunished, but focuses ever more intently on the abject bondage and the intimately dehumanizing experience of it.

Mr. Hard Heart, Mr. No Feelings, Mr. Cruel Heart, Mr. Demon, Mr. Fiend, Mr. Love Torture, Mr. Tyrant, and Mr. Cat Bearer—the names Reed gives the officers at Auburn capture his sense of their merciless dedication to inflicting pain. The rules at Auburn are legion, and any disobedience brings the lash. “When in church, we must keep our eyes directly on the chaplain and not be a gazing around us. Must not speak a word or look up at the inspectors … No trafficking or trading with each other.” One of Reed’s earliest rebellions comes after he discards a piece of meat he doesn’t like. The guard orders him to pick up the food and slams a heavy cane across Reed’s head. “Does the inspectors allow you to rap men over their heads with your canes and break their skulls in?,” Reed asks, and then erupts. “I have suffered enough through your tyrannical hands.” Reed draws a knife (I imagine he’d managed to hide it away for self-protection), and only when another officer raises a threatening pistol and a chaplain intervenes does he relinquish his weapon. For neither the first nor the last time, Reed is ordered into solitary confinement.

Here, as elsewhere, Reed’s memoir abruptly ceased, for me, to read like a distant document; the terrifying escalation stirred up all-too-familiar memories. Only days into my sentence, after I briefly balked at being moved to a new unit, I touched the arm of a deputy—a gesture that was meant to say, Okay, I’m coming. In response, he slammed me against a brick wall, cuffed me, and dragged me down a flight of steps. For assaulting an officer, I was thrown into a cell “in the hole”—not the last of my visits there either.

In the final pages of his memoir, Reed describes the different ways he was tortured while in prison—in addition to solitary confinement, which takes an incomparable toll. As an early British observer of the nascent American penal system noted nearly two centuries ago, “The whip inflicts immediate pain, but solitude inspires permanent terror.” Each short section is an indictment of yet another method of punishment that doesn’t merely injure but maximizes abasement: “The Author Is Put in Chains and Tied Up,” “The Author Is Handcuffed and Buck Upon a Barrel,” “The Author Is Put in an Iron Yoke,” “The Author in the Showering Bath,” “The Author With an Iron Cap on his Head,” and “The Author in the Spread Eagle.” The public wasn’t in the dark. A Harper’s Weekly article from 1858 described the death of an inmate at Auburn from the showering bath, a precursor to waterboarding. Reed writes that when he stands before God, he will show him how “those who might have done me a heap of good turned to be my destroyers … The very prayers which my mother printed upon my lips have all been wash away beneath the waters of a showering bath.”

Before his release from prison in 1863, Reed, like many formerly incarcerated people today, sought a pardon to restore his citizenship rights. (He ended up back in prison in 1864, and was discharged again two years later.) Unlike most governors today, Samuel J. Tilden was receptive. He issued Reed a pardon in 1876, but then Reed’s tracks become hard to follow—except for those letters to the House of Refuge in 1895. Was he planning to continue, or revise, the memoir that ended in 1858? As Caleb Smith notes, the answer remains a mystery, “at least for now.”

What Reed left is a poetic and unflinching account that forces readers to contemplate an enduring spectacle: men behind bars in a system bent on breaking them. He describes himself as “haunted,” and his memoir should haunt us with its exposure of a process designed at its origins to reduce men, whatever their color and their crimes, to worthlessness—to ruin them for life in freedom. Conditions and treatment that are still pervasive in the prisons of the United States can be traced back to a time before the blood of more than 600,000 Americans was spilled to end one peculiar institution. No one should underestimate the challenge, or the urgency, of transforming another.