Concern about Prisoners’ Evil Communication

face of a prisoner

Many eighteenth-century authors, artists, lawyers, philosophers, and reformers declared that communal life within prisons was morally corrupting. Jonas Hanway agreed:

What can be the consequence of associating prisoners, but reciprocal offices in a fraternity of thieves, teaching and learning all the mysteries of rapine and blood; and nourishing a dangerous enemy in our bosom?^

In a book published in 1775 on policing and other topics, Hanway expressed concern about prisoners’ “evil communication.”^ In Solitude in Imprisonment, published roughly a year later, Hanway insistently and forcefully focused on “evil communication” :

When {the heart} is corrupted by evil communication, is it reason, is it common-sense, to expect that corporal punishment alone will produce a reformation? …

In no case can evil communication or drunkenness produce any good. …

Evil communication under all circumstances must be productive of evil effects. …

We have, in practice, departed from the obvious principle that evil communication corrupts good manners.^

Within Hanway’s text, the plain meaning of “evil communication” is communication among prisoners. According to Hanway, communication among prisoners enabled “schools for villainy” that transformed minor offenders into skilled malefactors.^ Intense concern about “evil communication” became Jonas Hanway’s most influential contribution to penal policy.

The phrase “evil communication” has important advantages in the marketplace of ideas. Philosophers, moralists, parents, and others have long discussed the question “Can virtue be taught?” Such discussion typically encompasses a wide field of competing ideas about human nature, virtue, raising children, and educational programs. Hanway shifted focus to the question, “Can vice be taught?” and to generic behavior, “evil communication.” Moreover, he associated “evil communication” with all communication among a class of morally suspect persons not typically participating in deliberations about penal policy, i.e. prisoners. Hanway’s deliberative competitors were left with the inauspicious task of identifying and promoting some type of communication among prisoners that would not promote vice. Not surprisingly, Hanway’s idea dominated the marketplace of ideas.

Apart from his application of it, Hanway’s “obvious principle” does not have a plain meaning. Hanway stated that principle as “evil communication corrupts good manners.”^ Evil communication could mean speaking according to particular conventions considered to be bad (evil rhetorical manner) or it could mean associating with “bad company,” typically represented as persons who are poor, low-class, and foreign. “Good manners” might include appropriate patterns of address, observing conventions of social conversation, and other aspects of communication recognized to be good as a matter of upper-class social standards, such as those of English gentlemen of Hanway’s London society. As one scholar noted of the phrase, “it seems to me to have no edge to it.”^ One might easily empty it of meaning by taking it to mean nothing more than “evil corrupts good,” with evil and good accorded their dominant representations in prevailing public deliberation. Hanway’s well-known principle could thus easily conform to the dominant values of a particular time and place.

Bible quotation on the effect of evil communications: manuscript text of 1 Cor. 15:33
φθείρουσιν ήθη χρήσθ’ όμιλίαι κακαί : Text 1 in the Codex Vaticanus, probably written in the first half of the fourth century G.C.

Hanway’s “obvious principle” is based on a phrase whose meaning has changed significantly over its long, historic voyage of interpretation. Hanway’s reference is almost surely to a biblical verse from a Pauline letter: 1 Corinthians 15:33. The Codex Vaticanus provides the earliest still-existing physical inscription of this phrase . That textual artifact is about 1750 years old. The phrase, however, achieved public prominence much earlier. It occurred about 2300 years ago in the work of Menander, an ancient Greek comic playwright. Menander probably drew the text from an earlier work of Euripides, an ancient Greek tragedian.^ Whether one traces the source to comedy or tragedy, the phrase had much different meaning in Hanway’s Solitude in Imprisonment than it did in ancient Greece.

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