Most County Prisons and Local Jails Never Suppressed Communication

face of a prisoner

Many prisons that had little prominence in public deliberation never attempted to suppress prisoners’ communication. In the U.S. in the early nineteenth century, the penal system included county prisons and local jails in addition to state prisons. The transnational penal-policy consensus in favor of suppressing prisoners’ communication did not change how most county prisons and jails operated. The Warden of the internationally famous Eastern State Penitentiary attempted to direct attention to this problem:

In our penitentiary, this great evil to which I have alluded {communication among prisoners}, is prevented; or, I should rather say, its progress arrested; but in the county prisons, whence we derive our inmates, it exists to a deplorable and disgraceful extent.

The Warden suggested that the failures of county prisons hurt the performance of his institution:

Convicts received by us from such country prisons, may indeed frequently be reformed by our discipline; the lessons of vice which they have learned, when placed in a confinement which the law intended should be salutary, may sometimes be eradicated afterwards; but the great, the irremediable evil, has already been effected. … Hence our institution cannot produce all the advantages of which it is susceptible, until the county prisons are reformed by the same plan of separate confinement, &c. which we pursue.^

The need for comprehensive reform is a common excuse for failure. Such comprehensive reform never occurred. A Pennsylvania prison inspector, describing the Alleghany county jail (encompassing Pittsburg) in the early 1860s, declared:

it was most distressing to see convicts, burglars, murderers, young and old, guilty and innocent, black, and white, all having unrestricted access to each other’s cells, many of whom were amusing themselves by playing cards, smoking cigars, and doing whatever else they chose for passing away the time.^

Extensive communication among prisoners was also common in other jails. In New York State in 1847, 46 out of 49 country jails placed more than one prisoner in a cell. Only 15 out of 49 of those jails claimed to prohibit conversation among prisoners.^

A similar lack of comprehensive reform existed in England. Despite the Select Committee on Gaols and Prisons’ resolutions in 1835 that urged highly restrictive communication policies, communication policies varied widely across English gaols. Some gaols allowed extensive communication between prisoners and family and friends.^ Despite the consensus in favor of it among penal authorities, suppressing prisoners’ communications was never a policy implemented comprehensively in practice.

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