Hanway’s Plan for Solitary Confinement

face of a prisoner

The most prominent early advocate of suppressing prisoners’ communication was the English philanthropist Jonas Hanway. Hanway noted, “Everyone has a plan, and a favorite system.”^ Hanway’s plan was to suppress prisoners’ communication through mass solitary confinement. To help promote this plan, in 1776 Hanway published a small book with a plain grey cover. This modest form allowed it to be marketed for just one shilling.^ Hanway actively promoted his publications and often had institutions with which he was philanthropically associated subsidize and distribute his work.^ Hanway thus vigorously competed in the marketplace of ideas about penal reform.

Hanway’s marketing sense is evident even from the title of his book. Its full title:

Solitude in Imprisonment, with proper profitable Labour and a spare Diet, the most humane and effectual means of bringing Malefactors To a right Sense of their Condition, And how to qualify Offenders and Criminals for Happiness in both Worlds, And preserve the People, in the Enjoyment of the genuine Fruits of Liberty, and Freedom from Violence

The combination of “profitable Labor and a spare diet” appealed to those concerned about public expense on prisoners and to those who believed prisoners should be made to suffer. At the same time, Hanway’s plan claimed to be a “humane and effectual means” for inducing understanding of the prevailing order. In addition, it asserted utilitarian merits that covered both happiness on earth and happiness in life after death. For those not imprisoned, Hanway’s plan promised to ensure that crime did not diminish their enjoyment of liberty and freedom

Hanway’s deliberative tactics were quite sophisticated. Responding to criticisms that his plans were wholly impractical, Hanway, like a shrewd scholar peddling abstract models, linked his work to emotive aspirations and ideals:

We are always to keep such a degree of perfection in government in view, as may stimulate the endeavors of individuals, to maintain the empire of reason, and give peace and justice their true and genuine luster.^

He quickly followed up this statement with an affective international comparison. Noting that a prison recently built at Trim, Ireland, apparently provided cellular confinement, Hanway suggested that the Irish were leading the English, while also calling to the English mind Irish malefactors in England:

Whether the Irish are more or less wise than we are in England, I do not presume to decide; but they seem to shew us an example. If this imprisonment, reputed to be in solitude admits of thieves associating in any manner or degree, it will not answer to the idea I form of absolute solitude. And if Irish malefactors in Ireland are as bad as English, or Irish malefactors in England, the Directors of the Trim Prison may prove short-sighted, though in much less degree than the Directors of our Newgate.^

Hanway also made effective use of upper-class anxieties. He warned that “ill-educated common people” were thronging in London and that “religion is at a low ebb.” He linked concern about bodily disease, and developing medical knowledge, to the political system and penal policy:

as sickness and eruptions in the natural body sometimes grow into chronical distempers, which, if not radically cured, accelerate death; the political system may suffer in the same manner.^

At the same time, the first figure of a criminal that Hanway used in an extended discussion of the need for penal reform was a figure well-known throughout human history, a person probably not particularly intriguing to common people, but an object of intense interest among upper-class social reformers. Hanway’s first figure of the criminal was, of course, a female prostitute.

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