Transnational Consensus Supported Suppressing Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

By 1840, suppressing prisoners’ communication was a victorious idea within vigorous, transnational deliberation about punishment and prisons. The Eastern State Penitentiary became a leading exemplar of what was usually called the Pennsylvania system or separate system. The Auburn State Prison became the leading exemplar of what was usually called the Auburn system or the congregate system. Influential and highly respected persons, both in official and unofficial capacities, traveled from near and far to visit these prisons. Many of these eminent visitors wrote influential treatises that praised the Eastern State Penitentiary and extensively discussed means and consequences of suppressing prisoners’ communication. Other authorities advocated the Auburn System, or variants of it. The question for all was not whether to suppress prisoners’ communication, but the best way to do it.

Early reports of the British prison inspectors display this organization of discussion. The British prison inspectors’ second and third reports (1837 and 1838) contain lengthy sections organized as arguments for the Separate System (the Pennsylvania System) compared to the Silent System (the Auburn System). The Third Report marshals the views of twenty-one authorities in favor of the Separate System, including authorities in Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Norway, and Poland.^

The first International Penitentiary Congress in 1846 provided a transnational forum for discussing prison reform. The Congress was held in Frankfort-am-Main, Germany. Edouard Ducpétiaux, director of prisons in Belgium, and Whitworth Russell, inspector-general of prisons in Britain, organized it. They described their motivation for organizing the Congress:

Why is the progress of prison reform so slow? Why such diversity of systems? Certainly, greater unity of views is desirable, and, if arrived at, might secure a better success. ^

This motivation indicates concern about putting knowledge into practice and perhaps also hints at some trans-Atlantic policy rivalry. Among the seventy-five delegates who attended International Penitentiary Congress, most were senior European officials and European scholars. Dr. Karl Joseph Anton Mittermaier, distinguished professor of law at the University of Heidelberg, was elected president of the Congress.^ The only representative from the U.S. was Rev. Louis Dwight, the secretary of the Boston Prison Discipline Society and a zealous exponent of the Auburn system.

Discussion at the International Penitentiary Congress of 1846 mainly concerned suppressing communication among prisoners. Seven out of the nineteen questions proposed for the Congress specifically referred to the Auburn system or the Pennsylvania system. Seventeen concerned some aspects or consequences of suppressing communication among prisoners.^ The Congress endorsed “separate confinement.” Separate confinement, as defined in the Congress’s resolutions, suppressed communication and association among prisoners but provided prisoners with labor, exercise, instruction, and visits from persons in various official positions. Delegates unanimously endorsed separate confinement for prisoners awaiting trail and for short-time imprisonment. Three-fourths of the delegates supported separate confinement for “longer terms.”^

By organizing deliberation around the respective merits of systems for suppressing prisoners’ communication, the international penal congresses probably help to create implicit consensus that suppressing prisoners’ communication was a worthy goal. About 1869, Scalia, an eminent Italian justice official, noted:

For the last fifty years, the efficiency of the different penitentiary systems has been carefully debated, but that question has not yet made much progress; and, at present, as was the case a long time ago, the champions of different schools are ranged in the field of abstractions, to go over the same arguments, and to allege, on both sides, the same facts and arguments.^

Scalia argued for ongoing, systematic, standardized fact collection and scientific analysis of consequences. What went on in international congresses, he argued, was a much different sort of discourse:

Generally speaking, the congresses were mere academies, where any one went with the stock of goods he wanted to dispose of, and left with the same convictions which he entertained before those conventions.^

Such deliberative exercises can have consequences. A likely consequence is strengthening the assumptions that organized the formal deliberation.

masked prisoners silently walking together
Prisoners wearing face-obscuring masks walk by holding a rope under the silent system in Pentonville Prison, London, in the mid-19th century.

Prison construction and administration around the world in the middle of the nineteenth century indicates widespread consensus that prisoners’ communication should be suppressed. In Warsaw, Poland, construction began on a prison with 380 separate cells about 1831 and was completed in 1835.^ In 1839, a prison in Mecklenburg, Germany, began confining prisoners in isolation for one-year terms. By 1869, the ordinary form of imprisonment in Germany was described as solitary confinement, limited by statute in 1871 to no more than three years.^ Systematic suppression of prisoners’ communication was introduced in the Belgian prison system in 1835. In subsequent years suppression of prisoners’ communication was extended to numerous prisons in Belgium. These prisons included separate exercise spaces for prisoners and the uses of masks and separate stalls in chapel services.^ A prison that strictly suppressed prisoners’ communication began operation in Pentonville, England, in 1842. Known as the Model Prison, it also attracted many important visitors and was highly influential world-wide.^ From 1835 to 1850, prisons in North and South America, Europe (including Russia), India, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand adopted new designs and new rules intended to suppress prisoners’ communication.

Through the beginning of the twentieth century, International Penitentiary Congresses continued to endorse suppressing prisoners’ communication. This consensus endured in conjunction with the formalities of empiricism:

The International Prison Congress of 1900 discussed the results of the experiments, especially in Belgium, and reached the conclusion that the method {separate system} must be regarded with favor; that it has met the expectations of the promoters in diminishing or checking recidivism and general criminality, and that even when prolonged during ten years and more of confinement, there are no more unfavorable effects upon physical and mental health than occur under other methods, provided that those already seriously defective are removed.^

Estimating treatment effects is quite difficult, even for the separate system’s suppression of prisoners’ communication. Growth in prison populations, fiscal constraints, administrative practicality, and increased sensitivity to human rights almost surely were more important to undermining the international consensus on suppressing prisoners’ communication than was empirical evaluation of its effects on prisoners.

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