Ramblings & ephemera

The history of solitary confinement

From Daniel Brook’s “A History of Hard Time” (Legal Affairs: January/February 2003):

Dickens wasn’t the first European intellectual who had crossed the Atlantic to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. A decade earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville had been sent by the French government to study the Philadelphia prison. …

What drew the attention of Americans and Europeans was an innovative method of punishment being pioneered at the prison called solitary confinement. While the practice had roots in medieval monasteries, where it was used to punish disobedient monks, solitary confinement came to prominence as a form of criminal punishment in the United States soon after the Revolution. …

In colonial America, capital punishment had been common, and not just for murder – burglary and sodomy could earn an offender the death penalty as well. For less serious offenses, criminals were generally subjected to physical punishments meted out on the public square. In a frontier nation of small towns, public embarrassment was seen as the key to deterring crime. Physical punishment, whether in the form of the stockade or the whipping post, was combined with the psychological punishment of being shamed in front of the community. Jails existed, but they were used mainly to hold criminals before trial and punishment. There were no cells and few rules: Men and women were housed together, and alcohol was often available. …

In 1787, at a soiree held in Benjamin Franklin’s living room, [Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence & widely regarded as America’s foremost physician] presented an essay titled, “An Enquiry Into the Effects of Public Punishments Upon Criminals, and Upon Society.” Rush declared that “crimes should be punished in private, or not punished at all.” He claimed that public punishment failed to rehabilitate the criminal and risked letting the convict become an object of community sympathy. In lieu of public, physical punishments, Rush endorsed the creation of a “house of repentance.” Grounded in the Quaker principle that each individual is blessed with “Inner Light,” Rush envisioned a place of anonymity, solitude, and silence, where prisoners could dwell on their crimes, repent, and return rehabilitated into society. …

In 1821, the reformers finally convinced the Pennsylvania legislature to approve funding for Eastern State Penitentiary, which would be the largest public building in the country; with a price tag of nearly $800,000, it was likely the most costly one as well. No expense was spared: To prevent disease, each cell in the new prison was equipped with a toilet, a rare luxury at the time. When the penitentiary opened in 1829, President Andrew Jackson was still using an outhouse on the White House lawn.

The principles of the penitentiary system – silence, solitude, surveillance, and anonymity – were incorporated into the architectural plan. Eastern State was designed by John Haviland, a young architect, who proposed a hub-and-spokes model that allowed for constant surveillance. Inmates were housed in 8-by-12-foot cells arranged along a series of cellblocks radiating out from a central observation tower.

Each prisoner remained in his cell at all times, save for a brief daily exercise period held in an individual pen adjoining each cell. Prisoners ate their meals in their cells and did small-scale prison labor there like shoemaking. On the rare occasions when prisoners were allowed to leave their cells, they were prevented from interacting with other prisoners by hoods they were forced to wear to protect their anonymity. They were also forced to use numbers instead of names for the same reason. Silence was maintained at all times in the prison, and reading the Bible was the only activity other than labor that was permitted. Reformers believed that cutting inmates off from the world would foster meditation that would lead to rehabilitation, so visits from family or friends were prohibited. On average, inmates spent two to four years alone in their cells, underneath a single round skylight, known in the prison as the “eye of God.”

The expense of the building limited its influence in the United States, but Eastern State was widely copied in Europe and even in Latin America and Japan, where economic conditions made the model more attractive. Over 300 prisons were built on Eastern States’ hub-and-spokes model, in cities as diverse as London, Paris, Milan, St. Petersburg, and Beijing. Architectural historians consider the hub-and-spokes penitentiary to be the only American building type to have had global influence until the first skyscrapers began to rise in Chicago and New York in the 1880s. …

Dickens, who also interviewed prisoners at Eastern State, was far more skeptical. In his travelogue, American Notes, he described Philadelphia’s system of “rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement” as “cruel and wrong.” …

Dickens didn’t accept that the penitentiary represented human progress over the days of floggings on the public square, or as his prose suggested, even the medieval torture chamber. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” …

In New York, at the Auburn prison near Syracuse and later at Sing Sing in Westchester County, a modified system of solitary confinement was being put into practice. While inmates spent their nights in solitary cells, they worked together silently in a common area during the day. This allowed wardens to set up profitable prison industries that could offset the costs of prison construction. …

Despite this vehement defense of the solitary system, in the period after the Civil War, the regimen at Eastern State was slowly abandoned. … Without enough funding to keep the system running, inmates were frequently doubled up in cells. In 1913, the solitary system was officially abandoned. Solitary confinement became a short-term punishment for misbehaving prisoners rather than the prison’s standard operating procedure. …

More than half of all U.S. prisons in use today were built in the past 25 years, to house a prison population that has risen almost 500 percent over roughly the same period. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In raw numbers, it has more prisoners than China, a country with over four times as many people. …

Supermax prisons – high-tech, maximum-security facilities – were the answer politicians and corrections departments were looking for to solve the problem of increasing violence in prisons. Following Marion’s lead, corrections departments around the country began building supermax prisons, or adding supermax wings to their existing prisons to handle the growing number of violent prisoners who could not be controlled in the traditional prison system. Today there are 20,000 supermax inmates in the United States, roughly 2 percent of the total prison population, though in some states the proportion is much higher: In Mississippi, 12 percent of prisoners live in supermax units.

The system of punishment in supermax units resembles nothing so much as the system of punishment pioneered at Eastern State. The Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit, which cost California taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars, is perhaps the most notorious supermax. From the air it looks like a high-tech version of the Philadelphia prison: Its hub-and-spokes design is clearly descended from John Haviland’s 19th-century architectural plan. Inmates in the SHU (known as “the shoe”) are kept in their cells close to 24 hours a day. As at Eastern State, inmates eat in their cells and exercise in isolated attached yards. …

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who was given access to SHU inmates to prepare for providing expert testimony in lawsuits against the California Department of Corrections, has concluded that the regimen in security housing units drives prisoners insane, and he estimates that one-third of all SHU inmates are psychotic. He writes of what he calls “the SHU syndrome,” the symptoms of which include self-mutilation and throwing excrement.

Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who has interviewed supermax inmates, writes that a majority of inmates “talk about their inability to concentrate, their heightened anxiety, their intermittent disorientation and confusion, their experience of unreality, and their tendency to strike out at the nearest person when they reach their ‘breaking point.’ ” Even those inmates who don’t become psychotic experience many of these symptoms. Those least likely to become mentally ill in solitary confinement are prisoners who can read, because reading prevents the boredom that can lead to insanity. (The human psyche appears not to have changed since the days of Eastern State, when an inmate told Alexis de Tocqueville that reading the Bible was his “greatest consolation.”) Because roughly 40 percent of U.S. prisoners are functionally illiterate, however, reading can provide solace and sanity to only a fraction of those behind bars.

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