The sociology of punishment has developed a rich understanding of the social and historical forces that have transformed American penality during the last 40 years. But whereas these social forces are not unique to the United States, their penal impact there has been disproportionately large, relative to comparable nations. To address this issue, I suggest that future research should attend more closely to the structure and operation of the penal state. I begin by distinguishing penality (the penal field) from the penal state (the governing institutions that direct and control the penal field). I then present a preliminary conceptualization of “the penal state” and discuss the relationship between the penal state and the American state more generally.