Historical Communication with Prisoners

face of a prisoner

Having considerable freedom to communicate with prisoners was not unusual prior to the nineteenth century. By the early fourteenth century, prisons existed within the central space of European city-states such as Bologna, Florence, Siena, and Venice. These medieval prisons allowed considerable personal interaction between prisoners and the outside world:

Prisoners … were visible: they roamed the city as licensed beggars, as debtors in search of settlement, and as criminals en route to court. And inmates’ visibility increased during civic events such as routine festive releases, triumphal amnesties, and occasional riotous break-ins accompanying political turmoil. At the same time, there were many incomers to the prison: servicemen, lawyers, and physicians; guards and prison administrators; local priests, lay and religious friars, confraternity members, and court magistrates; families traveling far and near to supply their imprisoned kin with food and cash; prostitutes on nocturnal calls; and of course the daily flow of new and recidivist offenders.^

The prisons in Florence and Venice lacked a prison kitchen. Prisoners depended on outsiders regularly bringing them food.^

Consider the treatment of an imprisoned murderer. About 1604, Elizabeth Caldwell was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. While awaiting her execution, she was held in a gaol in Chester, England. She was not regarded as a monster to be shunned and destroyed. She received up to three hundred visitors a day while imprisoned.^

Debtors’ prisons in mid-eighteenth-century England were crowded with debtors’ wives and children. The debtors’ wives and children could enter and leave the prison at will. Many chose to live within the prison with their debtor husband or father. Wives and children of men imprisoned for debt made up two-thirds of the population of two major debtor’s prisons in London about 1776.

Prisons holding felons also freely admitted visitors. A visiting clergyman at Newgate Prison in London noted that a pregnant wife visited her husband daily “to supply him with sufficient food and when they were together they rarely talked, but she simply sat at his side; throwing her arms around his neck.”^ Prisoners also had ready access to visits from prostitutes. In 1702, London officials were informed that the deputy-keeper of Newgate permitted “lewd women and common strumpets…to constantly lay there all night.”^

About 1700 in the Massachusetts Bay colony, a young woman sentenced to be hung spent more than eight months imprisoned. She was imprisoned in a town in which she had not been previously known. Nonetheless, she received frequent visits from townspersons. She also was invited to leave the prison to attend “private Meetings of Christians in the Town.”^ Ordinary persons throughout colonial America freely communicated with prisoners. They threatened lawsuits if access to prisoners was denied.^

Ignatius Loyola in Prison
From the 1609 Illustrated Biography of Ignatius of Loyola, plate 36

Imprisonment prior to the nineteenth century implied a change in residence and in legal status. Imprisonment prior to the nineteenth century did not imply deprivation of the liberty to communicate with family and friends.

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