Philadelphia Society Favored Institutionalized Communication

face of a prisoner

Charitable institutions, like any other institutions, have institutional interests. Public reason, like any other communicative field, favors some communicative acts and disfavor others. Philadelphia society was at the center of America’s democratic development. The history of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons shows institutional interests and communicative structures that favored institutionalized communication with prisoners and disfavored prisoners’ communication with their families and friends.

The Philadelphia Society, founded in May, 1787, was a pioneering American civic institution concerned about penal policy and prisons. Benjamin Rush, a leading member of Philadelphia society, led the founding of the Philadelphia Society. Rush published two months before the Philadelphia Society’s founding an essay warning against communication with persons being punished. The Philadelphia Society soon followed up on Rush’s concerns. Seven months after its founding, the Philadelphia Society petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature for penal amendments to lessen communication with and among persons being punished:

punishment by more private or even solitary labour, would more successfully tend to reclaim the unhappy objects, as it might be conducted more steadily and uniformly, and the kind and portion of labour better adapted to the different abilities of the criminals; the evils of familiarizing young minds to vicious characters would be removed^

In 1801, the Philadelphia Society urged the legislature to confine prisoners separately. It did so again in 1803:

in 1803, (Jan. 25,) they {the Philadelphia Society}, jointly with the inspectors of the prison, urged the principle of solitary confinement, with labour, as the most efficient element of discipline —avoiding the possible dangers of idle solitude on the one hand, and the inevitable evils of association on the other. And we may add, that the general character of our {Pennsylvanian} Legislation on this subject, from 1803 to 1817, shows very clearly the sense then entertained of the importance of cutting off all means of communication between the convicts.^

The Philadelphia Society subsequently played a key role in designing the Eastern State Penitentiary to suppress all unofficial prisoner communication. That suppression encompassed communication among prisoners and communication between prisoners and their families and friends.

The Philadelphia Society’s written constitution described a universal fellowship of humanity, but also supported obvious distinctions among persons. The constitution’s preamble declared:

When we consider that the obligations of benevolence, which are founded on the precepts and examples of the Author of Christianity, are not cancelled by the follies or crimes of our fellow-creatures: and when we reflect upon the miseries which penury, hunger, cold, unnecessary severity, unwholesome apartments, and guilt, (the usual attendants of prisons) involve with them, it becomes us to extend our compassion to that part of mankind who are the subjects of those miseries. By the aid of humanity, their undue and illegal sufferings may be prevented; the links which should bind the whole family of mankind together, under all circumstances, be preserved unbroken;^

The miseries of of penury, hunger, and cold probably were not personally familiar to the elite members of the Philadelphia Society. Those hardships were commonly associated with a different “part of mankind.” Seeking to preserve unbroken “the links that bind the whole family of mankind together” didn’t prompt the Philadelphia Society to encourage prisoners’ communication with family and friends. The Philadelphia Society instead extended the concern of Philadelphia’s elite to the typically low-status population of Pennsylvania’s jails and prisons.

The Philadelphia Society was organized primarily as an institution of public knowledge. The offices of the Society included four physicians. Their duties were to “visit the prisons when called upon by, or to give advice to the acting Committee respecting such matters as are connected with the preservation of the health of persons confined therein….”^ The acting committee, consisting of six members, was to collect information, report to the relevant authorities, and analyze treatment effects:

The acting committee shall visit the public prisons, or such other places of confinement or punishment as are ordained by law, at least once every week. They shall enquire into the circumstances of the persons confined; they shall report such abuses as they shall discover to the officers of government who are authorized to redress them; and shall examine the influence of confinement or punishment upon the morals of the persons who are subject to them.^

Pennsylvania law in 1829 explicitly enumerated the acting committee of the Philadelphia Society among those authorized to visit prisoners:

No person who is not an official visitor of the prisons, or who has not a written permission according to such rules as the inspectors may adopt as aforesaid, shall be allowed to visit the same; the official visitors are the Governor, Speaker and members of the Senate, the Speaker and members of the House of Representatives, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the Judges of the supreme court, the Attorney General and his deputies, the president and associate Judges of all the courts in the state, the Mayor and Recorder of the cities of Philadelphia, Lancaster and Pittsburgh, Commissioners and Sheriffs of the several counties, and the acting committee of the Philadelphia society for the alleviation of the miseries of public prisons.

Under this law, communication with prisoners was legally limited to officially authorized visitors. These visitors were prohibited from facilitating communication with any other persons:

None but the official visitors can have any communication with the convicts, nor shall any visitor whatever be permitted to deliver to or receive from any of the convicts, any letter or message whatever, or to supply them with any article of any kind^

The Philadelphia Society visited prisoners as authorities under law. Such communication is not how human fellowship is ordinarily constituted. The Philadelphia Society’s authoritative position served the purpose of creating public knowledge about prison conditions.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia Society members were visiting prisoners in a mode of friendship mixed with moral instruction. In its Annual Report of 1862, the Philadelphia Society urged members to approach prisoners “in the spirit of kindness,” to act “friendly; manifesting a feeling of interest and desire to benefit them in any proper manner,” and to relate to prisoners as to “a fellow being, and a candidate for Divine Mercy.” Its members also sought to encourage “daily reading of the Holy Scriptures,” “cleanliness and good order in the cells,” and to provide “counsel suited to the case.”^ The Society’s rules recognized that some prisoners’ might not want to communicate with Society members:

3rd{rule}. That we regard the feeling of such inmates, as have expressed a desire not to be visited; and avoid pressing our company upon them; similarly situated we should desire others to respect our feelings in that particular.^

Society members visited on average each prisoner held in Eastern State Penitentiary twenty times during 1861. Visits reportedly ranged in duration from “a friendly salutation” to “a half hour, or in some instances even an hour.”^ In a typical month in 1854, visitors averaged 11 visits to prisoners per trip to Eastern State. If total visiting time was about three hours, the average visit length per prisoner was less than twenty minutes. Nonetheless, so impressive were these efforts that the Chaplain of the prison, perhaps feeling professionally threatened, gave a sermon in which he claimed that Society members were “endeavoring to promote {their} own salvation, and establish a claim to the mercy of God by self-righteousness in visiting the prison.”^ From 1886 to 1903, Philadelphia Society members’ visits to prisoners were less frequent, averaging about 3.4 per prisoner per year.

While attempting to provide Christian fellowship to prisoners, the Philadelphia Society showed little concern for prisoners’ communication with family and friends. Eastern State Penitentiary’s physician, not the Philadelphia Society, urged allowing prisoners to communicate with their families and friends.^ By 1854, prisoners’ “friends and relations” were allowed “under proper restrictions” to visit the prisoners.^ The Philadelphia Society in 1861 presented the purpose of its visits thus:

1st . To Secure a continuous supervision of our Prison Discipline – as to its effects upon the health and character of its subjects; and of the particulars in which its administration might be improved.

2nd. To give to prisoners the moral advantages of association with respectable citizens, desirous to aid their reformation, and to promote habits of reflection; good order and industry, and general amendment of life.^

The second purpose implicitly discriminates among visitors in a way that favored Philadelphia Society members’ self-understanding. It pointed away from prisoners ordinary communication with their families and friends and toward treatment expertise. The Pennsylvania Prison Society, which grew from the Philadelphia Society, describes its official visitors as “advocates for just and humane treatment of prisoners.”

Ordinary communication between prisoners and their families and friends has less value in public deliberation than does more instrumental communication. Regarding visits to prisoners from family and friends, a leading penal scholar and officer of the Pennsylvania Prison society early in the twentieth century declared:

Prison visits of this sort have always been pathetic to contemplate due to the emotional content involved and also because they are so inadequate. … Those who have witnessed a visiting day in a prison must agree that the bedlam due to several visitors talking loudly, the better to be heard, sometimes in several dialects and languages, with a certain amount of gesticulation, is not a very wholesome picture.

Relations among family and friends are emotionally fraught and not typically bounded instrumentally. Applying consequential reason to such communication makes sense only within ideals of public deliberation:

The selection of visitors to prisoners might more carefully be considered. … There are cases where a parent visiting his son might do more harm than an older brother or sister. This selection of relatives or friends for visitation has scarcely been touched in most, if not all, penal institutions. … It would seem, therefore, that if this field is to be explored, an extra-mural specialist should be added to the staff whose duty it would be to carefully cull out those {among the prisoner’s relatives and friends} who might, by their very presence in the prison gallery, do the prisoner a disservice, and encourage those to visit who will have a wholesome effect.^

Pennsylvania’s world-famous separate system suppressed prisoners’ communication with their families and friends. Within that system, visitors from the Philadelphia Society were considered to be highly important:

Visiting prisoners in their cells was the keystone of the system. And the thirteen volumes of the Minutes now in the possession of the Pennsylvania Prison Society bear mute testimony to the concern those patient Philadelphians felt for their unfortunate charges. The lone prisoner in his cell, working at a trade, took time from his employment to converse with the kindly visitor who was probably the only person in the world who was interested in his welfare. These visitors represented the best citizenship of the Quaker city. They were busy men. They came from the ranks of the professions as well as merchants, ministers, and even scientists.^

Men like these formed Philadelphia society, participated in public deliberation, and founded the Philadelphia Society. That social reality is as real as their concern to help prisoners. Both shaped the regulation and practice of communicating with prisoners.

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