Crime and punishment

Over the weekend a few of my good friends and I drove to Philly to get cheesesteaks. The ‘steaks were our main reason for making the drive (I recommend “Whiz, wit’out”), but the day ended up being much more enlightening than I thought it’d be. We toured the Liberty Bell, and then ended the day with a very chilly tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary. It got me thinking.

Opened in the countryside of Philadelphia in 1829, the Penitentiary was designed to be a place not just for punishment, but for reform, hence the name. Inmates had individual cells, and they talked to and saw no one but the guards. It was thought that the time spent in silence would cause them to think about their actions and their souls, and change for the better. They had no contact with the outside world, and the only thing they were allowed to read was the Bible. While the Pen is very cool–it resembles a castle–it’s also eery: its radial design was such that a guard could stand in the exact middle of the prison and look down each hallway just by turning, to see what was going on.

Radial Penitentiary

The original design. Several more cellblocks were added over time as the Pen grew overcrowded.

From a psychological perspective the Pen is pretty creepy. Now it’s easy to look at the thinking behind it and focus on the damage that such isolation and solitude could do to someone for an extended period of time. Even Charles Dickens, who visited the prison in the 1840’s, felt this way:

“I believe that very few men who are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature.” — American Notes, 63

Dickens was never one for subtlety, so perhaps he’s exaggerating a bit here. It is worth noting, as my tour guide informed us, that each cell had heat, a flushing toilet, and an adjacent exercise yard, the former two of which not even the president had in his quarters at the time.

But over the years the flaws in the design became clear. The prison grew so overcrowded that they had to build additional cellblocks and floors, making the rule of silence and isolation impossible. The craft projects that kept prisoners occupied and were intended to keep the Penitentiary afloat financially became useless in the age of the industrial revolution. While eventually the city ditched this old system for a more modern one in the early twentieth century, the prison remained in operation until 1971.

I suppose my point is that even though the designers’ efforts weren’t successful in the long haul, and it may have done more harm than good, they seemed to be truly trying to create a system that was just and godly. Why else would they supply inmates–criminals–with better living conditions than most citizens had, if they didn’t believe they deserved humane, caring treatment? I feel similarly conflicted about the death penalty and dozens of other political issues with a moral weight to them today. It’s sometimes very hard to know what’s best.

This is why the tour was so fascinating to me, because today we are still very much figuring out our criminal justice system (and every other kind of system, for that matter). I recently read this gut-wrenching article in the Times about the place of forgiveness and reconciliation in the prosecution of criminals, and how, if the victim/family of the victim is willing, they can sometimes work together to soften the sentence of the offender. The article is worth a read, and hopefully anticipates something exciting on the horizon.

Many of the people reading this will be religious, and I’m sure everyone has some moral leanings about these issues one way or the other. Questions about how to “deal” with people who’ve broken the law aren’t easy ones, but they’re important to think about.

If you’re ever in Philly, I recommend stopping by the Penitentiary and taking the tour. It tells you so much about the thinking of the time, yet feels eerily close to home. You probably want to go when it’s a little warmer out, though.

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2 thoughts on “Crime and punishment

  1. Thanks for the sensitive and smart reflections on Eastern State! We’re going to repost this article in a few places. I’m so glad you found your tour thought-provoking!

    Sean Kelley
    Director of Public Programming
    Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

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