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October 13, 2011

Eastern State Penitentiary and other historic prisons

Frontpc1This post provides a space for discussion of today's video about Eastern State Penitentiary and more generally about prisons as out modern default sentencing "output."  If you are interested in learning more about Eastern State, check out this terrific website.  

In addition, there are lots of other (in)famous prisons that tell stories about not only American crime and punishment, but also stories about America.  A number of notable Ohio-centric stories to be found within in this history, as documented by a relatively recent book entitled "Central Ohio's Historic Prisons."  Here is a snippet from the book:

With the opening of the Ohio State Reformatory in 1896, the state legislature had put in place "the most complete prison system, in theory, which exists in the United States."  The reformatory joined the Ohio Penitentiary and the Boys Industrial School, also central-Ohio institutions, to form the first instance of "graded prisons; with the reform farm on one side of the new prison, for juvenile offenders, and the penitentiary on the other, for all the more hardened and incorrigible class."  However, even as the concept was being replicated throughout the country, the staffs of the institutions were faced with the day-to-day struggle of actually making the system work.

Excerpts from this book can be accessed at this link.  The Ohio State Reformatory referenced in this passage is located in Mansfield, and is now an historic site (and also where the great movie The Shawshank Redemption was shot).  I could be readily talked into a class field-trip to this site (for extra credit, of course, and we can skip "Glamour in the Slammer").  Even without a trip north, I urge everyone to take a virtual tour via this huge photo gallery.

Especially if you are looking for some weekend web-surfing fun, check out these additional links to some good sites about some of the United States' most famous or most interesting prisons and jails:

October 13, 2011 in Ohio news and commentary, Scope of imprisonment | Permalink


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For me, fall semester’s greatest revelation has been the idea that imprisonment doesn’t have to be the default mode of punishment in America. In fact, as we have discussed in class, it wasn’t the default punishment for the greater part of human history, and even today, imprisonment doesn’t serve the purposes that it was created for. As a hard utilitarian, I get behind the principle that criminal punishment should do its best to rehabilitate offenders. From this standpoint, it was fascinating to learn that the Eastern Penitentiary was America’s means of putting Enlightenment thinkers’ novel ‘rehabilitation-through-isolation-and-reflection’ ideas into practice. From a philosophical perspective, it’s great to think of a time when policymakers could take the ideas of the world’s greatest thinkers and try them out.

In practice, however, those ideas didn’t turn out the way Bentham and his contemporaries thought they would. Based on Eastern’s essential business model- solitary confinement in a dark, damp and bad smelling cell for years- I don’t think there is much question as to why. Still, it is amazing that although the ultimate goal of rehabilitation through self-reflection and God didn’t pan out, the legacy of incarceration lives on, and has in fact proliferated Americans’ core thinking about punishment.

Considering imprisonment’s history, it also interesting that people rarely ask why imprisonment remains America’s de facto mode of punishment. Rather, we simply continue shipping our criminally defunct to overcrowded prison systems, maintaining our reign as the country that imprisons the largest proportion of its citizens. I’m sure one reason for this is that other psychological rationales for imprisonment have replaced the old notions of rehabilitation. My intuition is that most people are comforted that the ‘bad’ citizens that break laws are being separated from the rest of us, but then again (as Professor Berman said yesterday), I’m sure that that rationale loses its luster when it’s your family member or friend (or yourself) in prison, rather than some faceless, evil ‘other.’

Having learned a little more about imprisonment as a mode of punishment, I more firmly support Jefferson’s ‘tit-for-tat’ mode of punishment. Honestly, I think people who steal should have all of their belongings taken away- then, with a little psychological counseling, they can be released back into society to try again. Rapists- castrated (of course with some concurrent psychiatric care); arsonists- set on fire (not really, but you get my point). Having seen what has historically gone on in our prisons, I really can’t imagine that the ‘tit-for-tat’ system would have any worse results. As a nation that puts novel ideas into practice, I think we owe it to ourselves to give it a try.

Posted by: Will Herbert | Oct 14, 2011 8:14:14 AM

Just wanted to comment on one of the arguments against Eastern State and Auburn that were presented in the film yesterday.

I probably wasn't the only person in class who raised an eyebrow when the camera scrolled over the old sentence log at the prison and noticed that someone had been sentenced to only two years for murder. I wonder if those who saw Auburn or ESP's systems of punishment as inhumane would prefer shorter terms of hard labor or solitary confinement to today's "out of sight, out of mind" system of lengthy, but (arguably) easier-to-endure sentences?

Also, while I buy the rationale for scaling back prison labor systems (convicts shouldn't take jobs from regular folks) I'm not sure that automatically means hard labor has no place in our punishment scheme. Why not break rocks just to break rocks, not to provide cheap labor to industry?

I ask because I believe the public perception that prison these days is "too soft" is one of the driving forces behind lengthy mandatory minimums. Finding legitimate ways to make prison seem "tougher" would be a way to chip away at that perception.

Posted by: Elbert A | Oct 14, 2011 4:50:57 PM

I am like Will in the sense that before this class, I had never given a second thought to the idea that prison time is our default form of punishment (aside from fines). As an opponent of the death penalty, I always thought that a life sentence in prison was a “good enough” alternative to satisfy those who argue for the death penalty as the most effective means of pure retribution. I thought that for those who want to punish the most vicious criminals by death for retribution, a life sentence in a maximum security prison that allowed for no more than an hour of free time, or even solitary confinement, would be a worse (and in their minds better) punishment than killing them and giving them “the easy way out”. However, since we began this class, I realized that this argument goes against some of my very principles for opposing the death penalty, and this video on the Eastern Sate Penitentiary confirmed my doubts.

As a society, is it really desirable to put criminals in solitary confinement for years, possibly driving them to insanity? Of course the conditions would not be as horrid as those shown in the video, but regardless, is it more acceptable to damage someone’s mental health/soul as punishment than it is to damage their physical bodies? Our society has abandoned the physical torture that we used to impose as punishment, but this class has made me question how much better our current sentencing practices are.

Professor Berman once suggested that maybe instead of jail time, we should cut off the hands of those who steal. That seemed ridiculous to me at first, but if we really think about it, why are we more ok with harming someone’s mental/psychological being when we put them in jail than we are with physically damaging them? I’m not suggesting we go back to the inhumane physical punishment of the 1800s, but this class, and this video, has made me doubt so much of what I thought was a reasonable sentencing system, leaving me at a loss for what really constitutes a humane form of punishment. It is difficult to design a system that allows for punishments that fit the most heinous of crimes while not compromising our commitment to humane practices. Maybe it really would be better to try a system like Will suggests?

Posted by: Ranya | Oct 16, 2011 2:42:34 PM

I agree with Ranya that it's difficult to discern which is worse; psychological punishment or physical punishment. I think the stumbling point that's still keeping punishments like prison and, in the old days, physical punishment alive is the retribution justification.

Though I believe there should be a sense of equity restored when a crime is committed, I don't think taking away an offender's rights is the way to do it. At the end of retributive punishment what do we achieve? Maybe some level of deterrence; maybe even some peace of mind for the victim and society. However, the good that is produced doesn't seem too substantial to me. It seems to behoove all involved to rehabilitate and not punish. Yes, I understand the inequity in someone committing a crime and getting substantial amounts of free services on the tax payer's dollar. I also understand that this provides little peace of mind for the victim or the victim's family. However, does "an eye for an eye" attitude really have a place in "civilized" society? A rehabilitative approach that puts less of an emphasis on a retributive punishment may seem unfair in the short run but I believe justice will be served when we can decrease recidivism rates and increase productive members of society. Some retributivists argue that the offender has "stolen" from society by breaking the social contract and must pay a debt back to society. To me, there is no greater way to pay back a debt than by improving the society and community around us.

It seems that prisons are not a significantly more civilized approach to punishment than physical punishment. While this could be conceivably understandable if it were achieving goals and advancing society, it is not. Our penal system needs something beyond prison reform or a change of justification for prisons. Our penal system needs to whole heartedly turn its attentions to rehabilitation.

Posted by: Adrienne C. | Oct 17, 2011 9:01:44 AM

Like the other commenters, the Eastern State Penitentiary video definitely shed a new light on certain facets of the prison system that I hadn't previously considered. In a similar vein to what Adrienne said, the video made me think about the need for some level of rehabilitation for prisoners who commit more basic (i.e., non-violent) crimes. In a more stable world, with a stable and ideally burgeoning economy, turning prisoners into productive members of society seems to me to be the best way to have them "repay" the community for the wrongs committed, and help them find a niche that provides them with a more stable lifestyle. If there was a way to have prisoners learn how to do menial jobs, such as becoming factory workers (or something along those lines), they would have something to go straight into upon being released from prison. Of course, there would perhaps also be some need for some sort of therapy, but at the very least, a job would provide the former prisoner with the ability to care for him/herself and any dependents.

On a completely unrelated note, there was something that they mentioned in the video, but didn't make a huge deal about, that I find to be a sort of funny detail about Eastern State Penitentiary. The narrator mentioned that Al Capone got special treatment during his stay there. I had seen this on a television show a few months ago, and it's also featured on Eastern's website, but the prison allowed Capone to have a fully furnished cell. It's a minor detail in Eastern's history, but it is so hard to believe that in a setting like that, prison wardens were so easily swayed to treat certain prisoners with what seems to be reverence, while others were so blatantly mistreated (or maybe it's not so hard to believe, given stories of things like the drug rings and excessively cruel wardens?). It makes me wonder if other noteworthy prisoners, like Martha Stewart, were treated in a similar manner to Capone.

Posted by: Allison S. | Oct 17, 2011 10:56:37 AM

I actually visited the Ohio State Reformatory last summer and found it quite fascinating. While I believe the architecture itself is something to marvel at, it’s hard to believe what type of environment the prison really was back when it was still operating. As you open these huge wooden doors and see this magnificent staircase ahead of you, it’s ironic to think that at one time this is where they used to house and execute criminals.

Nonetheless, in turning to the concept of rehabilitation, I believe what I had heard on a National Geographic channel this past weekend. That is, when you have a heterogeneous society such as ours, citizens tend to be less reluctant to invest in prisoners. Rather than trying to use prison as a way to reform inmates of their old ways and get them to become productive members of society, Americans seem, for the most part, not too concerned with their inmates. This is not to say that many still don’t believe rehabilitation is a worthwhile cause, but it seems to be one of the quicker dying rationales at least in our modern society. The reasoning behind this rationale is that societies like ours don’t feel connected with each other as much—perhaps we, consciously or not, tend to look out more for our own “people” rather than everyone as a whole. This is in strict contrast to countries like Sweden, where because their society is so homogeneous, their prisoners are viewed more in the light of citizens that are one of their own. True, they must serve their time, but they must also be rehabilitated so that they can hopefully rejoin their society as productive members. There is no “we vs. them” attitude. Rather it’s more along the lines of “they’re one of us and we have to take care of them, too.” While I think Sweden has a an unfair advantage over us in this regards, I do think our mixing pot (or tossed salad, whichever you prefer) is one of the unique aspects we are fortunate to possess… even though it doesn’t help the fact that we are number one in the world for the county with the most serial killers or that we have the highest incarceration rate!

Posted by: Isabella | Oct 17, 2011 10:15:06 PM

Sidebar: The tree in Shawshank (also in Mansfield) was torn apart by a storm this summer: http://www.mansfieldnewsjournal.com/article/B7/20110730/NEWS01/107300302/-

Shawshank-tree-ripped-by-high-wind I would love to visit the prison as I've often flexed my trivial knowledge while driving by on the way to Cedar Point and pointing it out to people.

During long stretches of that documentary, I was thinking exclusively of Shawshank.

Sidenote over, continue intelligent discussion

Posted by: Colin P | Oct 18, 2011 9:32:50 AM

Isabella, with due respect to your thoughts on the heterogeneous society problem, and it's proponents, I think it's a crock. There are a lot of other countries that have diverse populations and don't imprison like we do.

The UK has large Caribbean South Asian populations, with considerable racial and socio-economic (poor Anglo) tension as evidenced by the recent London riots. France has a very checkered history with its Muslim/North African population. Many other countries have diversity and outgroups that are expressed in ways beyond skin color, like regional and language diversity - I'm thinking of the Basques in Spain and Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Most of these countries don't have anywhere near the imprisonment rates we do, but they all have extensive histories of racial and other forms of discrimination, as well as tension between social groups. To say that the US is special, and use that as an explanation for why we imprison the way we do, I think is a cop out and a disservice to our diverse population. It encourages us to use diversity as an excuse, rather than to separately face up to discrimination.

Posted by: Colin P | Oct 18, 2011 9:42:01 AM

I thought Isabella's argument was interesting, but I was also wondering whether diversity actually could account for the increased incarceration rates in our country, and I think Colin's examples are pretty solid evidence that diversity in itself is unlikely the explanation.

I think the fact that we are searching so hard for any sort of plausible justification for the U.S.'s elevated incarceration rates demonstrates the need for policymakers to re-evaluate the issue. As others have pointed out, incarceration seems to be little more than a holdover from the Rehabilitation Era. The reluctance of our country to adopt the sort of "tit-for-tat" style of punishment mentioned by Will above (castrating rapists, etc.) seems to be based on the notion that such methods are not "humane." However, I think that by excluding tit-for-tat punishment as a possibility, the U.S. is limiting itself in its ability to tailor punishments to be more in line with our underlying sentencing goals in the post-1984 world.

Posted by: Harrison Markel | Oct 18, 2011 10:29:07 AM

While very true, Colin, that a lot of other countries have diverse populations, be it ethnicity, religion, etc., and do not have such a high incarceration rate, my point regarding the U.S. as a heterogeneous society is that we aren't invested in the theory or rehabilitation as much as we once were or as some other countries are now (e.g., Sweden) in order to help inmates become a productive member of society.

Posted by: Isabella | Oct 18, 2011 3:09:12 PM

Isabella, thanks for clarifying. I guess I'm still not sold though. Incarceration rate is related to sentence length and other factors that go into the lack of a desire to rehabilitate and I think don't have as much to do with the composition of our society as much as they do with other societal values.

I'd be more compelled to go with an argument that it's more economic - since most people in prison are poor, it's easy for the non-poor to treat them as an un-fixable "other." But I'm still not necessarily on board with that.

I look at Sweden, and I don't just look at a place where the people look the same, but where as a society they have communal values. Public assistance is huge, taxes are high, and in doing so they reflect societal values that are more communal than individualistic. Demographics may play a role in this, and you can build a decent argument around that, but I don't necessarily think it's the big reason. Americans are culturally hardwired to be individualists - up by your own bootstraps and all that - so we come to look at a person's successes and failures as their own doing, so we make them take responsibility.

That's what I think, I could be totally wrong, but it is what it is.

Posted by: Colin P | Oct 20, 2011 11:31:52 AM

While we may have moved on from the topic, I could not resist posting this on Halloween:


ESP is #5 on the list.

Warning:The article is a touch crass.

Posted by: Olivia Bumb | Oct 31, 2011 1:03:59 AM

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