Knowledge about Prison Conditions Eclipsed Ordinary Communication with Prisoners

face of a prisoner

The potential significance of ordinary communication with prisoners for public action depends on the circumstances of ordinary life. In late eighteenth-century England, prisoners typically could communicate relatively freely with family and friends. At the same time, life expectancy at birth was about 35 years^, half of married persons were unable to sign their names to the marriage register^, and nutritional and health burdens made the typical man about four inches shorter than a comparable man in England today.^ In these circumstances, the struggle for survival consumed a large amount of persons’ time and attention. Most persons had meager resources for public action. In addition, the electorate was limited to only about 17% of men.^ Like the vast majority of men who lacked voting rights, women undoubtedly engaged in highly valued ordinary communication with imprisoned men who were their husbands, boyfriends, sons, fathers, neighbors, and friends. Women, however, also lacked important jobs and offices through which personal understandings could produce public action. These circumstances of ordinary life greatly limited the effects of ordinary communication with prisoners on public policy.

In these circumstances, knowledge about prison conditions came to dominate public deliberation about prison conditions. From the rise of natural philosophy in the seventeenth century, knowledge became a domain consciously separated from common understanding developed through ordinary communication.^ In the 1770s, extraordinary personal effort, influential social actors, and particular interests created knowledge about prison conditions. Such knowledge became enmeshed in vigorous competition among authorities. Proponents of the emerging field of social science and social work created institutions to support this knowledge. They argued that it had great scientific and humanitarian promise and deserved public support.

Ordinary life has changed to make ordinary communication with prisoners potentially more significant for public action. Personal understandings not formulated as knowledge claims, not offered to and produced from public deliberation, and not emerging from communicative competition, can significantly affect political choices in particular circumstances. In England today, most persons live above subsistence levels. Circumstances of ordinary life include universal education, universal communications technologies (e.g. the Internet), and universal adult democratic franchise. Compared to persons living in eighteenth-century England, persons likely to engage in ordinary communications with prisoners have much better opportunities to shape punishment policies through actions that do not create knowledge. Developed interests in knowledge have obscured the growing public value of prisoners’ ordinary communication with family and friends.

Prison Visiting and Prison Theater

face of a prisoner

Unlike prisoners’ communication with family and friends, prisoners’ communication with social elites has the potential to generate knowledge and conflict among social authorities. Leaders of Philadelphia society in 1787 formed “The Philadelphia Society, for alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.” A later account, probably based on primary sources, stated that the keeper of the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia “viewed the first interference of the members of the society, as altogether improper and unnecessary, and contrived to interpose every possible obstacle to the prosecution of their plans.” This account states that a clergyman from the Philadelphia Society:

believing that benefit would result to the prisoners from an occasional sermon, called on the keeper to inform him of his intention to preach “on the following Sunday.” That proved most unwelcome intelligence to the keeper, who instantly declared that such a measure was not only fraught with peril to the person who might deliver the address, but would involve also the risk of escape of all the criminals, and the consequent pillage or murder of the citizens.^

The clergyman was not deterred. He secured from the Sheriff an order for the jailer to permit the clergyman’s sermon to the prisoners. On the following Sunday:

The clergyman repaired to the prison, and was there received with reserve bordering on incivility. The keeper reluctantly admitted him through the iron gate, to a platform at the top of the steps leading to the yard, where a loaded cannon was placed, and a man beside it with a lighted match. The motley concourse of prisoners was arranged in a solid column, extending to the greatest distance which the wall would allow, and in front of the instrument prepared for their destruction, in the event of the least commotion. This formidable apparatus failed to intimidate or obstruct the preacher, who discoursed to the unhappy multitude for almost an hour… .^

This explosive scene did not inhibit the clergyman and other members of the Philadelphia Society from returning to the jail. William Webb, who was a jailor at the Walnut Street jail early in the nineteenth century^, insightfully described the events as a “theatrical exhibition” and noted, “The ‘keeper’s battery’ was a standing joke for the prison for all time.”^

Subsequent accounts of this scene have obscured the conflict of interest among authorities and imposed coherent classes. In 1846, the Third Annual Report of the Prison Association of New York recounted this history:

When the first attempt was made to preach to the convicts at the old Walnut-street prison, Philadelphia, …it was done with a park of artillery turned upon the convicts, the match lighted, and every precaution taken to prevent a riot; and even these measures were scarcely sufficient to quell the turbulent, ungoverned, and ungovernable spirits which tenanted our prisons.

Happily the scene has completely changed, and nowhere will you find more quiet, attentive, and orderly hearers than within our prison walls.^

This account presents historical theater of a different sort. The Prison Association of New York, along with the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons and the Boston Prison Discipline Society, had by the 1840s become accepted institutions in elite society. All three became closely involved in prison administration. With the interests of the Philadelphia Society and prison administrators unified, the historical drama shifted to the threat of prisoners in need of discipline.