Until prison reform took hold in the 18th century, American prisons were overcrowded and unhealthy. Rotting jail cells were common, and prisoners could easily spread disease to one another. Jailers were responsible for so many prisoners that it was not uncommon for some inmates to be completely forgotten.
The Quakers saw the problems and started to take steps to revolutionize the prison system out of compassion for the inmates. In the 1780s, founding father Benjamin Rush assembled a group of Quakers to find a solution to the prison problem. Together, they decided that a new system needed to be created.
According to Rev. Richard Killmer, the Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Rush’s group wanted to create “a place and a time for prisoners to think about what they have done, the crimes that they have committed, and then to grow to the point where they are able to resolve that they will never, ever, ever do that again.”
That “place” became solitary confinement – a form of imprisonment in which the prisoner is isolated from all human contact.
The first American jail created to experiment with solitary confinement methods was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, PA. It was built by the Quakers in 1790 and featured a separate section with 16 individual cells.
“In the wing known as the ‘Penitentiary House,’ inmates spent all day every day in their cells. Felons would serve their entire sentences in isolation, not just as punishment, but as an opportunity to seek forgiveness from God,” writes Brooke Shelby Biggs in Solitary Confinement: A Brief History.
The Eastern State Penitentiary was another early adopter of solitary confinement. It was originally intended to house 250 inmates, and admitted both male and female prisoners. Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842 and was appalled by the scene he witnessed. Of his experience, he wrote:
The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment.
Originally, Quakers believed that solitary confinement was a positive approach to reforming criminals and helping them change their behavior However, as time passed, it became clear that constant isolation had more negative than positive effects on the prisoners.
Dr. Benjamin Rush’s group, now known as the Pennsylvania Prison Society, still survives today and works for social justice and correctional reform. Solitary confinement in the United States has left its impression on the world, and the method remains controversial and a subject for moral debate among politicians and activists alike.
Watch the video: Solitary Confinement: A Question of Morals