Monastic Precedent for Communicative Suppression

face of a prisoner

Systemically suppressing prisoners’ communication was not a U.S. policy innovation. At least by the twelfth century, punishment of monks sometimes took an extreme form called vade in pace (“go in peace”). This meant life imprisonment in harsh isolation, such as “a subterranean cave in the form of a grave.” In the fourteenth century, the king of France, horrified by such punishment, ordered:

priors and superiors to visit {imprisoned monks} twice a month and to give, in addition, their permission to two monks of their choice to visit them twice a month; that is, he ordered that they be visited at least once a week…. holding with reason that it was inhuman and barbarian to deprive poor wretches, overwhelmed by sorrow and pain, of all consolation.^

This description of the king’s order focuses on the frequency of visits. The indicated visitors, “two monks of their choice,” seems to refer to persons that priors and superiors designate. Monks built their communities upon expansive appreciation for brotherhood and sought to follow Abraham in knowing God intimately as a friend. Nonetheless, monastic concern for communication with imprisoned monks remained within the bounds of persons having an authorized relationship to the prisoner.

Mabillon’s Public Concern for Imprisoned Brother Denis

face of a prisoner

Jean Mabillon, a seventeenth-century European scholar and religious leader, poignantly failed to value ordinary communication with prisoners. Mabillon wrote a short essay criticizing the harsh regime of monastic prisons. Contrasting monastic prisons with lay prisons, he noted that prisoners in lay prisons usually had “the liberty to see each other at certain hours and even to receive visits from friends and other charitable persons.” Regarding errant monks deprived of such visits in monastic prisons, he declared, “May no one say that it is good for them to be left alone in order to get time to think about their conscience and seriously reflect upon the sad state into which they have precipitated themselves.” He argued that imprisoned monks should be visited at least once or twice a week, and that the visits “should last more than a moment; one should listen to them, hear their troubles and their complaints, revive them, console them, fortify them.”^

Mabillon himself engaged in friendly communication with an imprisoned monk, but he did not recognize publicly the value of this type of communication. In their monastery at Saint-Germain des Près in Paris, Brother Denis, a younger monk, became Mabillon’s companion and assistant. Brother Denis and Jean Mabillon apparently developed a close relationship.^ ^ Denis, however, engaged in “libertinage,” deserted his duties as a monk, threw off his habit, and roamed outside the monastery for months. He later reappeared deeply in debt. An effort to reform him ended with Brother Denis again abandoning his habit and running away from the monastery. Denis was subsequently apprehended and imprisoned. Mabillon described Denis as a “poor brother and friend.” When Denis was in prison, Mabillon wrote letters to him and at least sought to visit him. Mabillon communicated with Denis as a friend.

Mabillon did not publicly recognize his own practice of communicating with his imprisoned friend. In his written proposal for reform of monastic prisons, Mabillon wrote:

{Imprisoned monks} should be frequently exhorted and the superior or some one in his place should take care to visit them separately and console and fortify them from time to time. Laymen and outsiders should not be given entrance in this place, where a strict solitude should be maintained.^

Ordinary communication with family and friends, such as that of Mabillon with his imprisoned friend Brother Denis, is a typical means for consoling and fortifying. Mabillon ignored such communication in his written proposal for prison reform.

Mabillon expressed considerable concern for the reputation of monks among their peers. He noted:

it is an insupportable lack of charity, unfortunately too common, not to spare the reputation of a monk who has fallen into error, but to spread within an entire Order, or sometimes even outside, information about sins that were either hidden or known only to a few persons besides his judges.^

Showing similar concern, an early Pennsylvanian penal reformer described the consequences of public punishment as infamy and ignominy. These destroy “the sense of shame, which is one of the strongest out-posts of virtue” and have consequences that are “universally acknowledged to be worse punishment than death.”

Social elites tend to be more intensely concerned about reputation than are ordinary persons. Social reputation, however, isn’t central to ordinary understandings of friendship. Jean Mabillon was an elite, seventeenth-century religious leader. His social status may have prevented him from expressing publicly the value of his communicating with his imprisoned friend Brother Denis.

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.