Solitary Confinement Differentiated from Suppressing Communication

face of a prisoner

Early nineteenth-century American models for suppressing prisoners’ communication were differentiated from solitary confinement. At its opening in 1817, Auburn State Prison in New York State allowed extensive communication among prisoners. From December, 1821, to mid-summer, 1823, Auburn Prison held its prisoners in solitary confinement. Auburn Prison then shifted to separate cells for prisoners along with congregate, but silent, prisoner eating, exercising, working, and worshiping.^ The later regime became known as the Auburn System. The Pennsylvania System, as modeled in the Eastern State Penitentiary that began operating in Pennsylvania in 1829, kept prisoners separate at all times, but allowed authorized visitors to prisoners. Proponents of the Pennsylvania Systems preferred to call its mode of confinement “separate confinement” rather than “solitary confinement.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168 (1890), reviewed the history of solitary confinement as punishment for crime. The Court noted, “it is within the memory of many persons interested in prison discipline that some 30 or 40 years ago the whole subject attracted the general public attention.” The Court’s historical review, however, did not clearly distinguish solitary confinement from the Auburn and Pennsylvania systems. More recent legal briefs have similarly obscured that distinction.^

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