Evil Communication in Early Writing on Prison Administration

face of a prisoner

After Jonas Hanway forcefully condemned prisoners’ evil communication in 1776, subsequent writing on prison administration occasionally used the phrase “evil communication” (or “evil communications”). For example, an elite petition to London prison officials in 1785 noted:

The consequence of which confinement in a state of indolence and evil communication, produces a greater depravity in their own minds and disposes them {prisoners} to promote a further corruption of manners amongst those who are easily detected in acts of pilfering and felony….^

This text’s connection of “evil communication” to “corruption of manners” echoes the phrasing of 1 Corinthians 15:33 in its publicly dominant English translation. In its original context, the “evil communication” phrase had nothing to do with prisoners. Hanway made its public application to prisoners.

Other elite authors also followed Hanway’s application of evil communication to prisoners’ communication. Consider Joseph John Gurney. Gurney wrote a book, published in 1819, that described prisons in Scotland and the north of England. The book’s title page declares that the prison visits were made “in the company of Elizabeth Fry.” Gurney also began his preface by noting that he made the prison-visiting journey with his sister, Elizabeth Fry. Gurney and Fry were from a socially and economically well-positioned family. In 1817, Elizabeth Fry and other Quaker women founded the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. Her effort attracted sufficient public attention that a committee of the House of Commons , the committee On the Prisons of the Metropolis, called upon Fry for testimony on February, 27, 1818. Today, Fry is a celebrated figure in the history of prison reform. Fry was enough of a celebrity in 1819 for her brother to invoke her name prominently to promote his book on prison conditions.

Gurney’s book uses “evil communication” twice. One reference implicitly refers to the evil-communication phrase from the widely known English translation of 1 Cor. 15:33:

The principle of the Glasgow Bridewell is solitary confinement – one cell for one prisoner; but now there are two persons in every cell. Thus the course of that evil communication which “corrupts good manners” is perfectly easy and uninterrupted, and its consequences inevitable.^

Reasoning about consequences was central to the development of public reason in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Elite participants in the growing, highly competitive public sphere associated evil communication with low-status, marginalized prisoners. The context of Paul of Tarsus’ invocation of “evil communication” was quite the opposite.

Elite prison reformers in the U.S. used the term “evil communication” in texts describing prison reform. The Annual Reports of the Prison Discipline Society of Boston frequently use the term “evil communication.” For example, the Second Report (1827) discusses “means to prevent evil communication” and repeatedly uses the phrase “evil communication.”^ This phrase also occurs in reports of the Prison Association of New York’s Second Annual Report (1845) and Ninth Annual Report (1853).^ ^ The phrase “evil communication” also occurs in the Report of the Inspectors of the Eastern Penitentiary, 1853.^ Elite prison reformers across the Atlantic fitted their contextual English understanding of “evil communication” to the major, early-nineteenth-century prison-reform goal of suppressing prisoners’ communication.

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