Monastic Precedent Not Central to Early 19th-Century Penal Policy

face of a prisoner

Monastic precedents did not drive the early nineteenth-century growth of communication-suppressing penitentiaries for lay prisoners. The modern scholarly literature occasionally cites monastic confinement and a seventeenth-century religious leader’s essay on reforming monastic prisons as inspirations for early nineteenth-century penal reformers. Penal reformers, however, seem not to have noticed this essay before a penal reformer published it in 1837. Deep anti-Catholicism in English and U.S. culture made monasteries, a predominately Catholic institution, an unlikely place for reformers to look for policy innovations. The Protestant Reformation popularized personal, inward-looking Christian spirituality, the aesthetics of black text on a white page, and finding “spiritual meaning in blank walls and silence.”^ Protestantism, however, generally valued little the monastic life. Instead, Protestantism directed Christians to a common vocation to contribute through their everyday work to building God’s kingdom on earth. Communication-suppressing penitentiaries grew not from Catholic institutional practices of devotion to God, but from enlightenment developments in medicine (knowledge of contagious diseases) and philosophy (utilitarianism and social welfare), and from new forms of social competition (philanthropy).

Social rationalization helps to explain undervaluing ordinary communication with prisoners. Unlike a monastic superior or other persons officially designated to visit prisoners, family and friends don’t hold institutional positions with explicitly constructed duties. One cannot plausibly propose to impose duties on persons acting as family and friends and ensure their accountability to those duties. Moreover, even within a community that extolled brotherhood and friendship, a monk might not in fact have persons regularly acting as family and friends to him. Administrative functionaries are simpler, more effective persons to use in discussing and implementing prison communication policies. Especially to institutional leaders, ordinary communication with family and friends is a less compelling idea for providing comfort and strength to prisoners than is authoritative communication authorized and represented to do just that.

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