Suppression of Communication in the District of Columbia Penitentiary, 1846

face of a prisoner

On July 8, 1846, the U.S. District of Columbia Penitentiary held 63 prisoners. Every prisoner was held in a separate cell. Prisoner were not allowed to converse with one another. The only exception to the rule of silence was to instruct another prisoner about prison work in the congregate workshops, and then only in the presence of an officer. Communication between prisoners and the outside world was tightly restricted:

No prisoner is permitted to write to, receive letters from, or be visited by their relations or friends, except in extreme cases, and all correspondence has to pass the Warden’s inspection. The prohibition of the visits of relatives and friends may appear a harsh regulation, but it is evidently a wise one; for the intention of an institution of this description is the repentance and reformation of those who should unfortunately be sent here, and also as a punishment for their transgressions against the laws; and if a prisoner’s mind is continually engrossed with information from without, they are rendered more difficult to manage. Whenever information is given to the Warden of the health of the prisoner’s relatives, they are notified of this fact: in the event any of the prisoner’s relatives should die or be sick, they are not told of it until their liberation. The prisoners are measurably buried from the world as an expiation for their offences, and should any of them be made aware that efforts are making for their pardon, they are uniformly rendered miserable, and cause trouble to their keepers; while at the same time the institution is measurably deprived of their labor.^

These communication restrictions characterized the ideal of the Auburn (congregate) model of prison discipline. Communication in U.S. county prisons and jails typically was much less restricted.

The penitentiary for the U.S. District of Columbia began operation on April 9, 1831. The prison had a total of 150 cells. The dimensions of the cells were 3 feet, 4 inches, by 8 feet, 1 inch, with height 7 feet, 9.5 inches.

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