Suppressing Communication Not Sufficient for Reforming Prisoners

face of a prisoner

Prisoners’ communication with family and friends was largely ignored in 19th-century policy deliberations about the extent to which prisoners’ communication should be suppressed. George Combe, a prominent exponent of phrenology, recognized that suppressing prisoners’ communication wasn’t sufficient for enduring reformation of prisoners. About 1840, Combe observed:

The Pennsylvania system preserves the convict from contamination by evil communications with his fellow prisoners, and prevents the other convicts from knowing the fact of his being in prison. It does not, however, hinder his associates who are at large from becoming aware of his conviction and imprisonment. The reports of the trial in the public newspapers inform them of these; and I was told that they will keep a note of them and watch for him on the day of his release, if they should happen themselves to be then at large, and welcome him back to profligacy and crime.

Combe’s reasoning assumes that prisoners weren’t persons who succumbed to temptation while living in close relation to virtuous persons. Moreover, Combe’s phrenological treatment of prisoners did nothing to change prisoners’ social relations upon release from prison. Instead, Combe proposed to develop the moral and intellectual strength of the individual:

invigorate and enlighten the moral and intellectual powers to such an extent, that he, when liberated, shall be able to restrain his own propensities, amidst the usual temptations presented by the social condition.^

Imagining enlightenment to transcend human nature and human social conditions (nurture) is a powerfully transcendent idea of enlightenment.

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