After Quakers spent time in 17th century prisons under horrendous conditions, many of them went on to help reform the prison system. As AFSC’s Laura Magnani explains, it didn’t go exactly as planned.
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- What did you know about the history of the penitentiary and solitary confinement before watching the video? Knowing how Quakers were involved, what responsibility do Friends have today in reforming the prison system?
- Laura Mangani calls the story of the penitentiary a “cautionary tale about reforms.” What do you think she means?
Quakers did not invent solitary confinement. But Quakers were very involved in the organization that started the penitentiary, which was a place that people were supposed to go and be penitent. It was the reform. So it’s a cautionary tale about reforms.
Did Quakers Invent Solitary Confinement?
Prisons up until that point had been dungeons. They had been horrendous places. Staff wasn’t getting paid, people were getting all kinds of bribes just to get their meals. Children were thrown in with adults, and there was no sanitation. It was a horrendous, ugly situation, which Quakers became familiar with because they themselves were thrown in prison.
An Ecumenical Reform
This is really mostly going on in Britain, and John Howard is often cited as the person responsible for this idea of the penitentiary, but here in the United States, it was this other organization with a very long name, which is now still in existence, called the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and they propose this reform. About 50% of the people in that organization in 1790 were Quakers. It wasn’t a Quaker organization; it was actually the first ecumenical organization that we know of in the country. Ecumenical in those days meant different kinds of Protestants. They didn’t include Jews, they didn’t include Catholics, and it was headed by an Anglican bishop for the first 49 years, believe it or not. No Quaker monthly meeting that I know of ever passed minutes to advance this reform, but a lot of Quakers were involved.
A Rehabilitation Model
So this reform was not just about solitary confinement. It was about taking people on the assumption that they could be reformed. It was a rehabilitation model. It included paid staff, it included trained staff, it included jobs… food… I don’t know if I would call it “healthcare”… sanitation. It was a much cleaner, more sanitized version of these dungeons that they had before. Separation of women and men, taking the children out of that constellation… a lot of positive things that were really about helping people reform.
But very quickly, mostly because of overcrowding, this experiment (as they called it) failed, because things were chaotic they couldn’t hold to the disciplines that they had started, and that kind of thing. So instead of abandoning it, people were very invested in this idea that they had, and so they just started doing it bigger and bigger. And that’s when Eastern State [Penitentiary] got built, and I think one out in Chestnut Hill got built, and New York picked it up, and Massachusetts picked it up, and it proliferated.
Now, if you go and take the tour at Eastern State here in Philadelphia, you’ll see that those solitary confinement cells about three times the size of the solitary cell today. They had skylights you could open and close yourself, to the real live sky. They had little gardens that people could could grow things in. I mean they were really much more humane than what solitary confinement has become, but the notion that people would become penitent based on being alone and just you know between themselves and God (the Bible was really the only piece of literature they were initially allowed to have) you know, the monasteries had thrown off that idea in the 1400s. So the idea that it would be picked up again in the 1700s as a reform, as something that had any chance of really working, is faulty. But it’s also faulty, [in that] it was never considered to be “solitary” in the sense of our understanding of what silent worship is about. That was never part of the rhetoric about advancing this reform.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.