Eliza Farnham on Suppressing Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

Eliza Farnham, a 19th-century American proponent of phrenology and a female supremacist, bravely opposed the transnational penal-policy consensus in favor of suppressing prisoners’ communication. Farnham produced an American edition of Marmaduke Sampson’s phrenological work, Treatise on Criminal Jurisprudence Considered in Relation to Cerebral Organization. That work include an appendix in which Sampson questioned Charles Dickens’ sensationally unfavorable account of communicative suppression at the Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania. Sampson described a few weeks of solitary confinement as “absolutely necessary” and argued that Eastern State’s communicative regime could not be fairly described as “rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement.”^

Farnham added her own section to Sampson appendix on Eastern State Penitentiary in her edition of Sampson’s work. She began with diplomatic respect for the supporters of the communicative regime at Eastern State. She went on, however, to criticize directly and strongly that regime:

If the criminal is to be reformed, he is to be reformed for society, not solitude. It were easy enough, by shutting a man away form all association with his fellows, to prevent the possibility of offense against them. And if he were never again to sustain social relations, this treatment, though a wrong in itself, would be such to him only. But our criminals are to be prepared for return to society. And how are years of this solitude to fit them for sustaining the various social relations; for the exercise of justice, respect, charity, forbearance and self-denial, which the most favoured situations in life demand; every one knows how rapidly a seclusion of a few months even, unfits the mind for social duties and enjoyments; how it begets a morbid sensitivity which makes us shrink from society and dread the trials it imposes on us. How much more increased, then, must be the effect of years!^

Farnham’s description of society seems to project elite parlor society onto the common life of released prisoners. Nonetheless, her insight that humans have a profoundly social nature is consistent with a wide range of phylogenetic and developmental evidence on human nature.

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