The Prison & The American Imagination
Yale University Press, 2009
272 pp. $40.00 cloth
Solitude can be a vehicle for liberation, or it can tear a person apart. To say nothing of sagely hermits—the American cult of reclusive individualism delivers at once intrepid pioneers and desperate housewives, mountaintop transcendentalists and deranged unabombers. As Yale English professor Caleb Smith hauntingly reveals in The Prison & the American Imagination, nowhere is this ambivalence better and more brutally expressed than in our penal institutions.
At least since the opening of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, the corrections business in this country has carried on a love affair with isolation. The Quaker capital’s flagship “penitentiary” was suffused with the theology of the Inner Light. Inmates lived in solitary cells lit by a single skylight—the “eye of God”—where they ate, slept, shat, worked at handicrafts, and waited. In so doing, the intention was, a man would drift into reveries of meditation, coming face to face with himself and the obedient divine spark within. The prison, said one of its founding documents, will “teach him how to think.” Reformist ambitions also took on the transformative language of born-again evangelicalism. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had imagined that upon an ex-convict’s release people would proclaim, “This brother was lost, and is found—was dead and is alive.”
Famous visitors from across the Atlantic made sure to put Eastern State on their itineraries. One of its most vocal critics was Charles Dickens, who didn’t buy the architects’ ambitions. “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain,” he wrote in his American Notes, “to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” In retrospect, one can scarcely doubt that Dickens had it right; Eastern State delivered not new life but living death.
Meanwhile, reformers in New York State developed the competing “Auburn system.” While it shared Pennsylvania’s practice of nighttime solitude, this alternative reunited inmates during the day for hard labor. To prevent them from contaminating each other with conversation, guards enforced a rule of silence. This model caught on considerably more among prison authorities, molding delinquents with both private mysticism and (at least the appearance of) an honest day’s work.
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