The Invention of Solitary

Situated in the thriving neighborhood of Fairmount in Philadelphia lies a decaying ruin: Eastern State Penitentiary. Back when this iconic prison admitted its first inmate in October of 1829, the then-magnificent building was up on a hill far from where most Philadelphians lived, and it was a site to be feared. Behind its massive stone walls was a carefully engineered, painstakingly designed set of cell blocks lined with small cells where inmates would be held in perpetual solitary confinement. What would later to termed the “Pennsylvania system” of justice, this machine was thought to be able to admit hardened criminals, give them time for ample reflection (23 hours a day in absolute quiet), and turn them back out onto the city’s streets as reformed, reflexive, spiritual men and women. After Eastern State was closed in January of 1970, it was essentially left to the elements.

We met with Sean Kelley, program director at Eastern State Penitentiary, on Cellblock 12.

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When Eastern State first opened, it attracted a wealth of tourists and visitors from around the country and from abroad—both day-trippers looking to admire the clean machinations of a state hell-bent on reformation of its worst criminals and representatives from governments from Europe searching for a solution to keep their own underclass in line. Kelley estimates that around 300 prisons were built in Europe that were based on the Quaker model at Eastern State—as large a footprint in the European disciplinary psyche as Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon model that Foucault made so famous. The effect was the same: a complete separation from others would lead toward inner reflection, a sterling example of how systems of power regulate individual bodies and minds.

As Kelley describes in the video above, the practice of long-term solitary confinement was eventually abandoned in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because it was deemed too cruel and inhumane to maintain. The next move in this disciplinary system was to “modernize” solitary toward what it is meant to be today: a system of punishment within the general prison population. “You still needed a prison inside of a prison because the problems that exist outside always exist inside the prison, too,” he explained. “The lesson of these Eastern State-inspired prisons was that people hate this, they absolutely hate it. It’s an unnatural state of living, and so if you really want to get someone’s attention, just cut them off from human contact.”

Those that could not conform to the strict rules of Eastern State after 1913 were held in the “Klondike” temporarily. What is called “the hole” in most prisons, the “Klondike” is a disciplinary room dug out of the side of Cell Block 14, and is only accessible by descending a very steep set of stairs. At the bottom, about a half dozen 4 foot by 8 foot cells have been dug into the walls—a set-up that is completely immersed in darkness, without electricity, running water, or ventilation. In a move that eerily recalls the current use of “the hole” in prisons across the country, solitary confinement was used not for redemption, but purely for punishment. Resembling sensory deprivation rooms (but housed in a dank cellar), the “Klondike” subterranean cells were eventually forcibly abandoned after a state penal commission suggested in an August 1953 investigation that the living conditions in this special cellblock were beyond barbarous.

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“Eastern State pretty thoroughly discredited the idea that solitary confinement will reform individuals: the idea that you can take someone bad, isolate them, and they’ll spend time looking into their hearts and becoming penitent, that, I hope, is an idea that we are past,” Kelley told us. “However, there is this pendulum swing in prisons that goes between whether we try to habilitate people or whether we try to punish them harder.” As has been well-documented by numerous scholars and activists over the last three decades, the system in America is swinging right back toward vigorous and vicious punishment, and away from purely reformist intentions.

Loic Wacquant, a professor of sociology who has been mentioned on this site before, has traced the evolution of the social state into the penal state, in what he labels “the great penal leap backward.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that in 1975 there were 379,393 inmates in county, state, and federal prisons, as compared to 1,931,850 in 2000. As Wacquant writes in Prisons of Poverty, “one might think that after 15 years [from 1975 to 1990] of such frenetic growth American jails and prisons would reach saturation and that certain…homeostatic mechanisms…would kick in…But America’s carceral bulimia did not abate: at the end of the single year 1995…an additional 107,300 found themselves behind bars, corresponding to an extra 2,064 inmates per week.” (During this same period and even a bit before, crime rates began a long, steady decline that has never been proven beyond a doubt to be the result of these policies of enforcement.) And it wasn’t that the numbers of inmates were just on the rise, but rather their sentences were getting longer and solitary confinement was being deployed more frequently to keep certain prison populations under close control. In Punishing the Poor, Wacquant explains how our obsession with “insecurity” has led to an amalgamated discourse that “is amplified and ratified by the prefabricated productions of a certain magazine sociology that shamelessly lumps together schoolyard brawls, stairwell graffiti, and riots in derelict housing projects.”

Recognizing the dangerous slope that we are currently sliding down, the American Friends Service Committee’s STOPMAX Campaign and organizations like it around the country are building a network to abolish solitary confinement, which has become the preferred control mechanism for the mentally ill and politically vocal inmates. The “tough on crime” mentality of the last few decades has offered us a return to the policies that made Eastern State a beacon in its time, without the curiously benevolent motivations. When the prison in Marion, Illinois was put into unending lockdown in 1983, America saw its first supermax prison arise out of a penal state, establishing a revised Eastern State-like system in our time.

“What you don’t see as much of is a government like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the 1810s and 1820s, saying let’s try something really expensive and new, and let’s try to find a way to give people options and make them better by opening up different experiences to them. Different tools and a different education,” Kelley explains. “As much as we are horrified by the way that the inmates here were treated—which by all accounts was an extraordinarily difficult experience—at least they were trying to make the inmates better people when they left so they wouldn’t have to keep coming back here.” The officials at Eastern State were careful not to have the inmates under their care just sit and suffer—they provided a Bible to each inmate (although many were functionally illiterate at best), taught them a trade, and offered moral/spiritual counseling. Although a bit paternalistic, these practices, Kelley believes, signaled a good faith effort toward reformation of the inmates and the correctional system as a whole.

“The idea almost seems naïve now, like it’s almost become a do-gooder idea: that people can change.” Even though the Quaker philosophy underpinning all of the reform efforts at Eastern State eventually backfired and was cast aside, the essential goal was a good one. In Kelley’s words, it was “to make a good neighbor” out of those who formerly were not welcome in society. Of course, in the early years of the prison’s life—at a time when photography and fingerprinting were still decades away—it was impossible to track recidivism or to quantify the successes of this effort. The question remains, though: what if our correctional systems today abandoned practices that over 100 years ago were deemed too cruel, and instead initiated a reform effort for the twenty-first century? What if the balance between punishment and reformation was finally found?

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