Ours is a grimy bit of blue;
And very small;
And sunbeams scarce adventure to
O’ertop the wall.
A bird that flutters swiftly by;
A wind that passes with a sigh;
A cloudlet sailing slow and high;
And that is all.
O matins, and O vesper bells,
A city of a thousand cells—
A thousand individual hells.
Incarcerated in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadephia in 1916, Clarence Alexander Rae, a convicted book thief, penned the internal experience of a life interupted. The narrative he traces through his book of poems, A Tale of a Walled Town, follows the path of subjection, the result of inescapable regimes of surveillance and control. Dedicated to “Our Lady with the Lamp,” it is one of the earliest tales of captivity to emerge from the modern prison complex, an outcropping of reformist practices that ultimate strove to control the body so as to free the soul for enlightenment.
In his recent book, The Prison and the American Imagination, Caleb Smith calls the prison narrative “the first distinctly American literary genre.” He cites Mary White Rowlandson’s 1682 text, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, as one of the earliest captivity narratives, and perhaps one of the most fascinating. Abducted by what she labels the devilish native peoples and held in slavery while they massacred the settlers of New England, she describes the horrors of being held against one’s will. Her six-year-old daughter dies, and Rowlandson’s madness drives her to hug the corpse through the night until it is torn from her: “I cannot but take notice how at another time I could not bear to be in the room where any dead person was, but now the case is changed; I must and could ly down by my dead Babe, side by side all the night after.” Echoing the work of sociologist Loic Wacquant, Smith concludes that “the captivity narrative has served to reinforce, perhaps even to create, identities in conflict: white against red, or against black, or against shades of brown.” In a strange way, the prison narrative is the most American of all, and the one in which our systems of disenfranchisement and prejudice are erected and enacted.
When a prisoner first arrived at Eastern State after the usual surrender of possessions would, he would be stripped down, his hair shaved close, he’d be numbered, then led to his box of solitude with a hood over his face that obscured all light and sensation. In the early years before they instituted hoods with holes for the eyes, he’d never leave his cell without all of his senses being enshrouded in darkness. There would be no letters or news from his family on the outside, and only the occasional word from a guard could be heard—he was essentially, Smith argues, buried alive and transformed into bare life. The only book that was allowed in the cells was the Bible.
The building itself was the hailed as the perfect system of the time, and its architect, John Haviland, became the prison architect of the 19th century on the backs of this effort. Eastern State accepted its first inmates in 1829, but wasn’t completed until 1836. The radial plan allowed the 450 solitary cells (each with a small skylight) to be policed efficiently—long rows connected the wings to a central command center. Inmates found themselves in a very small, vaulted cell with a bed that was hung from chains, with a small space for their required work. A small peephole allowed the guards to look in whenever they felt the urge, and food and materials relating to their work was passed through a small slit in the door that remained closed when not in use. The real surprise was the water tap and flush toilet in every cell, at a time when many in the city just a few miles south of the walls did not have such luxuries.
There is something distinctly Poe about all of the tales from the inside of this early supermax; the narratives of these inmates is thoroughly gothic with its medieval iron gates, deep shadows, unnatural solitude, and persistent nagging of emerging psychoses. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe, residing at the time not too far away from the prison walls, wrote in the shadow of Haviland’s much-praised architectural feat. The prison’s first board of directors wrote that the architecture would “turn the thoughts of the convict inwards upon himself, and to teach him how to think.” In effect, the total immersion in solitude would lead the convict to split his criminal mind from his “penitent” mind, and hence our word “penitentiary.” In the mind of the Quaker reformers who inspired this new prison philosophy, the inmate would eventually wrestle with this split until they reached a state of passivity and contentment—a mythology of resurrection if there ever was one.
While in the 18th century justice was carried out within communities that inspired their own form of punishment (mainly focusing on the Hammurabian eye-for-an-eye style), the turn of that century saw the rise of institutionalized punishment. The Walnut Street Jail was built in 1790 by a bunch of Quakers living in Philadelphia, and was effectively the first prison that was focusing on reforming its inmates. Buildings built for mental and physical torture, these early jails (like New York’s Newgate Prison of 1797 and Auburn Prison of 1816) had moved the hangmen outside but kept the interiors similar to those more medieval-styled sites. Inmates would mingle and live in giant pits of rooms, and the overcrowded spaces essentially gave rise to a population better trained in all acts of criminality. Eastern State, in some ways, was seen as a vast improvement on these earlier conditions, and even the eyes of civilized Europe turned toward the building for inspiration. Charles Dickens famously made a visit to Eastern State during a trip through the States, and the master of sympathy found something he didn’t expect. He wrote that the inmates were “dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair,” and wondered of one prisoner “why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open…and raise his eyes for an instant…to those bare walls?”
By the end of that century, the Supreme Court was investigating the mental anguish of enduring long-term solitary confinement, which Dickens surmised was “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” A century after total solitary confinement was abandoned at the prison, Eastern State shut its doors in 1971, and has since been allowed to degrade into a glorious ruin that perhaps, poetically, mirrors the degradation that occurred in each prisoner’s mental and emotional life. National Geographic’s recent special, Solitary Confinement, featured some inmates being held in solitary in the Colorado State Penitentiary, and many of them stated how they would act out just to get a hit from a guard’s club. That one touch—no matter how brutal or how much it reasserted the power differential—would remind them that they are at the bottom of it all a part of the human community. And when we read the tales from Eastern State, the lore of the old world, it is easy to see a sort of neuroses that we have toward those who are confined—the hoods, the vaulted ceilings, the rupturing of all ties to the outside, the obsession with reform and the inability to make that happen. There is more to be said about the Quaker ties, and certainly with the Biblical and resurrectionist undertones of much to do with the early solitary confinement set-ups, but it’s worth just drawing it back to today’s prisoners, Eastern State’s legacy.
Listen to a piece from June 2009 by the National Radio Project, which spoke to some inmates being held in solitary confinement, and some of the family members on the outside.