Monastic Influence in Penal Policy Imagination

face of a prisoner

Penal historians have projected silence and isolation in new, early nineteenth-century prisons back to monastic precedents. ^ ^ ^ ^ The seventeenth-century Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon in an essay on monastic prisons described an improved monastic prison:

In this place there would be several cells similar to those of the Carthusian monks, with a workshop to exercise them in some useful labor. One could also add to each cell a little garden which would be open to them at certain hours and where they could be made to work or walk. ^

Mabillon’s statement evokes an image similar to life in the Eastern State Penitentiary that began operations in Pennsylvania in 1829. Mabillon’s statement thus may have contributed to imagining a monastic origin for penitentiaries.

Mabillon’s essay, however, remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1707. Perhaps Mabillon, his friends, and biographers considered it controversial, especially since Mabillon’s friend Brother Denis never reformed (after a failed first escape, Denis escaped again from prison and was not retaken into imprisonment). The essay was first published in 1724 in a large, two-volume collection of assorted works. Mabillon did no other work on penal policy. Prison reformers apparently were unaware of his essay until the French prison reformer L. M. Moreau-Christophe published it in 1837.^

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

Your email address will not be published.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