Prison Economics Undermined Suppression of Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

A strong upward trend in prison population undermined both congregate and separate prison-discipline systems. Both the congregate and separate systems required one cell per prisoner. However, the political process that determines prison population and the political process that funds prison construction are not tightly connected. Adding prison cells usually occurs in sizable increments (building new prisons). The political return to building unoccupied prison cells is low. With rising prison populations, prisons are thus continually overcrowded.^ Prison overcrowding typically implies housing more than one prisoner per cell.

U.S. penitentiaries built to have one prisoner per cell did not limited cells to one prisoner for long. In 1827, a survey of pioneering U.S. penitentiaries observed:

For some time after their commencement, these establishments appear to have answered every purpose which their promoters had in view. But as from various causes a relaxation of discipline took place, and as from the rapid increase in the population of every part of the United States, a great influx of prisoners was occasioned, the buildings became inadequate to their reception, or at least to afford that secluded accommodation, which is indispensable to their utility.^

Penitentiaries in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia in 1827 were holding more than one prisoner in a cell, in most cases more than two.^ From 1850 to 1890, the number of prisoners in the U.S. grew sixfold. The deliberative consensus in favor of having one prisoner per cell did not enduringly change the institutional determinants of prison population and prison construction. Growth in the number of prisoners over time inevitably led to more than one prisoner per cell.

Auburn Prison housed more than one prisoner per cell soon after it became the exemplar of the congregate (Auburn) system of suppressing prisoners’ communication. Auburn Prison pioneered the Auburn system in 1823. By 1831, its prisoner population exceeded its cells by about one hundred. The warden of Auburn Prison then noted, “discipline in this prison has suffered, and is suffering, from the necessary contact, in many cases, of two convicts in the same dormitory.” The warden pleaded for funding for an expansion of his prison. He eventually received funding to construct additional cells.^

Pennsylvania state prisons, exemplars of the Pennsylvania system of suppressing prisoners’ communication, similarly did not for long maintain separate cells for prisoners. Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary began operation in 1829. By 1833, it had more prisoners than cells.^ More cells were built, but the number of prisoners continued to rise. In 1866, Eastern State had twenty-nine more prisoners than cells. By 1881, only 435 out of 1025 convicts in Eastern State were confined separately. Pennsylvania’s Western State Penitentiary, which less successfully implemented the Pennsylvania system, had by 1861 eighty-one more prisoners than cells.^

Growth in prison populations similarly undermined one prisoner per cell at other prisons. New Jersey implemented the separate system in 1836. In 1852, thirty cells in the New Jersey State Prison housed more than one prisoner.^ In 1859, the New Jersey legislature reported, “The prison is now so full that the system of solitary confinement is, in practice, disregarded, many cells having two or more prisoners.”^ In 1873, at least sixteen state prisons in the U.S. had more than one prisoner per cell.

Both the Auburn system (the congregate/silent system) and the Pennsylvania system (the separate system) in principle imposed absolute silence on prisoners. A survey of state prisons in the U.S. and Canada in 1866 found that, except in four state prisons, “absolute and unbroken silence is the {formal} rule.”^ As late as 1937 in the Iowa State Prison in Fort Madison, inmate rules required that an inmate observe “strict silence” in his cell, in the Cell House, Hospital, Dining Room, and while marching through the yard. The rules stated, “Communication between prisoners is strictly prohibited except by permission of the officer in charge.”^

Prisoners who share a cell cannot realistically be prevented from communicating with each other. Having more than one prisoner per cell made a rule of absolute silence impossible in practice. A survey of state prisons in 1866 found that the rule of silence often was not enforced: “Communication, then, we must believe, takes place among convicts continually, and, in most prisons, to a very great extent.”^ From early on, prison population growth that exceeded prison cell construction undermined in practice the deliberative consensus to suppress prisoners’ communication.

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