In 1829 George Washington Smith published a “pamphlet” in the Philadelphia Gazette entitled, A Defence of the System of Solitary Confinement of Prisoners Adopted by the State of Pennsylvania. In 1833, the work was republished by the Philadelphia Society for the Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. The printer, should you care to pick up a copy, was E.G. Dorsey, Printer, 16 Library Street.
The pamphlet was originally published to influence the legislature at the time a bill was pending which concerned the organization of penitentiaries in the state. On the first page of his pamphlet, Mr. Smith lays bare his proposition:
We propose to inquire whether solitary confinement, or rather the confinement of prisoners separate and apart from each other, united with a system of labor and instruction, be expedient in Pennsylvania. [Emphasis in original]
He deals briefly with the question of whether prisoners should be left to work. “The maintenance of any class in idleness, has never been intentionally practiced by any industrious and thrifty nation.” (6)
The more important question for Smith is whether keeping prisoners “separate and apart from each other” would benefit the prisoner. Now, throwing someone else into a pit, alone; chaining a miscreant in a dungeon has been the pastime of the powerful from time immemorial. Mr. Smith notes that
The Egyptians were accustomed to bury alive in dark, narrow and secluded cells of some of their vast and secure edifices, which at once served for prisons and for tombs, certain offenders against their laws. (7)
Which idea was put to good use against Fotunato in The Cask of Amontillado. Now Mr. Smith was not proposing that prisoners be walled-in behind bricks. His concern was quite the opposite.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War, a society had been formed in Philadelphia to provide for the more humane treatment of prisoners. However, the war displaced the work of the society until 1786. And one great idea from this work to humanize the prison system was to introduce solitary confinement.
The thinking was simple: Bad company corrupts good morals. The reformers were concerned about the reformation of the prison system because they were concerned about the persuasive effects that bad company would have upon those who found themselves in prison: the “effectual seclusion from society and the prevention of further injury by prisoners during the period of incarceration.” (7)
He traces the concept of segregation alone for one’s good to religious practices. It was a means of reforming the offending member to conformity by means of the “penance” of being alone. “Reformation, and not the infliction of suffering, was the noble intention of this institution.” (9)
Then in 1779, John Howard in Great Britain along with Sir William Blackstone, the great legal commentator, proposed solitary confinement as a means of reforming prisoners rather than transporting them to Australia. That same John Howard made a sizeable contribution of 500 pounds to the work of the Philadelphia society.
In a moment we will hear from those voice quite a different opinion on solitary confinement and would think of their forebearers as monsters indifferent to the plight of the hapless prisoner. But that would be unfair to them. Consider how Mr. Smith describes the then-existing jail:
In this den of abomination, were mingled in one revolting mass of festering corruption, all the collected elements of contagion; all ages, colours, and sexes, were forced into one horrid, loathsome communion of depravity. Children committed with their mothers, here first learned to lisp in strange accents of blasphemy and execration: young, pure and modest females, committed for debt, here learned from the hateful society of abandoned prostitutes (whose resting places on the floor they were compelled to share) the insidious lessons of seduction. The young apprentice in custody for some venial fault, the tyro in guilt, the unfortunate debtor – the untried and sometimes guiltless prisoners, the innocent witnesses, detained for their evidence in court against those charged with crimes – were associated with the incorrigible felon, the loathsome victim of disease and vice, the disgusting drunkard (whose means of intoxication were furnished unblushingly by the jailer!) Idleness, profligacy and widely diffused contamination were the inevitable results. (11)
They did not see solitary confinement as an excessive punishment, but as a means of protection. In 1838, John Silby writing in Great Britain published A Letter on the Superior Advantages of Separate Confinement Over the System of Prison Discipline, at Present Adopted in Gaols and Houses of Correction Addressed to Benjamin Hawes, Esq., M.P. and Respectfully Dedicated to the Worshipful Her Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the County of Surrey. Not exactly a promising title.
I feel the strongest assurance that nothing of the kind need be feared. I am fully aware that solitary confinement is a severe description of punishment, and, moreover, its severity may be said to increase in geometrical proportion to the time of its endurance, while the sympathies are preserved in healthy activity; but I repeat my fullest conviction that if judicially administered, no fears need be entertained of its consequences ; on the contrary, there is every reason to hope that the result would be most beneficial. I have had a prisoner under my charge, undergoing solitary confinement for six months, without the slightest alarming symptom appearing; he enjoyed very good health, and although a little reduced in strength at the end of his confinement, still not more so than many others who underwent hard labour for a less period. (66)
But by 1851, a physician reporting in the Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy made the following observation about the system of solitary confinement:
Not many years since, a visiter to this prison might pass and repass through the whole extent of the working apartments, without being observed by any, or at least very few of its inmates; and the means of communication between the convicts, either by signs or speech, was almost wholly suppressed. Under such discipline is it not philosophic to conclude, that the health of the convicts must suffer much more than from absolute solitary confinement? By such discipline, the instincts of our nature are continually violated, every sound that vibrates upon the ear is a call upon some other sense to assist in its relief, and every emotion of feeling has its demand upon some other faculty to come to its relief, or help in its manifestation. Now is it not easy to perceive that so great a strife continually waged between the instincts and volition, must be fraught with serious consequences to the mental and physical health of the subjects of such a system. (9)
The physician’s notes are not a model for clarity, but his point is plain. This system of solitary confinement had a profound effect upon the prisoner, but not in a positive manner. Solitary confinement did something to prisoners: it forced a profound change in the prisoner.
As the author Jack Abbot wrote concerning the “hole” (what he called solitary confinement): It could “alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”
Jack Henry Abbott, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison 45 (1981).