THE WAR ON PUNISHMENT: California is considering a ban on solitary confinement in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers. Unlike many other California ideas, this one doesn’t strike me as completely crazy. Many people consider solitary confinement, at least over long periods of time, to be unnecessarily cruel.
But it’s interesting to remember that at one point in history the opposite view was riding high: In the early 19th century, the notion that convicts should be placed in solitary confinement in order to allow them the opportunity to reflect upon their sins and become penitent (hence the term “penitentiary”) was considered kind. This Quaker-inspired philosophy was pushed by the Philadelphia Society for Ameliorating the Miseries of Public Prisons in part as a substitute for corporal punishment and other harsh treatment.
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was built on this view in 1829. Each prisoner was to be separately enclosed in a cell lit by a glass skylight representing the “Eye of God.” They had no contact with other human beings except when absolutely necessary and were expected to read their Bibles silently, work, and contemplate the wrong turns they had taken in life. The importance of solitude was taken to such an extreme that their heads would be covered when they had to be moved from one cell to another.
In its time, Eastern State Penitentiary was the most famous prison in the world. Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 with Gustave de Beaumont. (Don’t forget that the original purpose of their American tour was to learn about the prison reform movement here). Charles Dickens visited in 1842 and was apparently horrified:
Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired…. He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years….
But here’s the problem for me: It seems like every form of punishment known to man is considered intolerable these days. They all have to go. The de-incarceration movement is regarded as God’s work on both the Left and certain portions of the Right. Corporal punishment is considered barbaric by huge numbers of people these days, certainly for adults and increasingly for children too. And many view the death penalty with horror. My colleagues on the Commission on Civil Rights are aghast at the use of monetary fines and also at so-called “collateral consequences” of felony convictions (such as ineligibility to vote, ineligibility for certain public housing, etc.). And don’t get me started about school discipline issues ….
There is every reason to want to avoid unnecessary cruelty in the world. But it seems naïve to think that the world can get by without the need to punish wrongdoers. If we try, I suspect we’ll find ourselves with a lot more wrongdoers.
I recently ran across a vividly worded passage from The Laws of Manu, an ancient Hindu legal text: “If the king did not, without tiring, inflict punishment on those worthy to be punished, the stronger would roast the weaker, like fish on a spit.”
Maybe it’s my dour Scottish ancestry talking, but that sounds like a bit of ancient wisdom to me.