Distinguished Visitors’ Privileges at Eastern State Penitentiary

face of a prisoner

Distinguished visitors were welcomed to Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary and allowed to converse with prisoners held under its separate system of prison discipline. According to Pennsylvania law, such visitors needed written permission from the Pennsylvania prison inspectors. That such written permission was required in practice seems doubtful, given Eastern State Penitentiary’s vigorous efforts to promote its model of prison discipline. William Crawford, a British penal official who visited Eastern State Penitentiary in 1833, noted, “Having had the unrestrained privilege of visiting the cells at all times, I have had many opportunities of conversing in private with a considerable number of the prisoners.”^ Eastern State Penitentiary also allowed local ministers and members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons to converse with prisoners. Distinguished visitors apparently received similar privileges.

The English novelist Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842. In his book American Notes for General Circulation, published in 1842, Dickens wrote:

I was accompanied to this prison by two gentlemen officially connected with its management, and passed the day in going from cell to cell, and talking with the inmates. Every facility was afforded me, that the utmost courtesy could suggest. Nothing was concealed or hidden from my view, and every piece of information that I sought, was openly and frankly given.^

Dickens, in terms that anticipated Michel Foucault’s work, Surveiller et punir (1975) {Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison}, condemned Eastern State’s operation:

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 which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.^

Dickens compared Eastern State’s operation unfavorably to that of the silent (congregate) system:

In its superior efficiency as a means of reformation, compared with that other code of regulations which allows the prisoners to work in company without communicating together, I have not the smallest faith. All the instances of reformation that were mentioned to me, were of a kind that might have been – and I have no doubt whatever, in my own mind, would have been – equally well brought about by the Silent System.^

Dickens work, like that of Foucault, attracted considerable attention and was highly controversial.^ It had little actual effect on penal policy.

Other state prisons in mid-nineteenth-century U.S. did not accord visiting dignitaries the privileges that Eastern State Penitentiary did. Crawford apparently was not allowed to speak with prisoners at New York’s Auburn State Prison.^ About 1840, Thomas Larcombe, the Moral Instructor at the Eastern State Penitentiary, lamented:

The season of my vacation gave me an opportunity to visit some of the Criminal Institutions in neighboring States. I hoped to derive benefit from intercourse with those who have been several years officiating in similar spheres of religious instruction….

The privilege of conversing with the prisoners was not permitted in any of the prisons I visited, except those at Trenton and Providence. From the facilities afforded in this institution {the Eastern State Penitentiary} to Ministers of the Gospel, and to other persons, seeking information relating to prisons, this was to me an unexpected disappointment.^

Eastern Penitentiary’s willingness to allow dignitaries to converse with prisoners suggests both its intellectual confidence in its operating model and its distinction between virtue-inducing and contaminating persons.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *