The Unlikely Roots of Solitary Confinement

In a perverse tribute to human endeavor, solitary confinement began as a reform. Thinkers in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries imagined that it might be possible to induce criminals to change from within, especially if they could be kept isolated from one another and from the corruptions of the outside world. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a Panopticon—a circular prison with a central “inspection house” that allowed authorities to look into any cell at any time—was predicated on the idea that the prisoner under constant surveillance would internalize authority’s gaze, and cease misbehaving.

The Panopticon itself was never built, but Bentham’s ideas of solitary confinement and penitent reflection appealed to Pennsylvania Quakers, who incorporated them into an idea for a new kind of prison that was built. Philadelphia’s huge Eastern State Penitentiary, completed in 1829 and still standing, deviated from the Panopticon by making no cell visible to any other; rather, cells were located in corridors that radiated like spokes on a wheel from a central hall. Each cell had a Bible, and each prisoner was given piecework jobs. Cultivators of silence, the Quakers believed that isolation would help criminals mend their ways. The Pennsylvania system was copied all over the world, and the word “penitentiary” became universal.

One reason for the rapid spread is that the new penitentiaries appeared to be an advance over capital and corporal punishment, which had been the main penalties up to that time. As Michel Foucault observed, the locus of punishment shifted from a criminal’s body to a criminal’s mind. Reformers in England believed they had found in solitary confinement the “most terrible penalty” short of death that a society could inflict—and yet, in their view, the penalty was also “the most humane.” It turned out that the therapeutic value of isolation was negligible; in fact, solitary confinement made prisoners worse, to the point of driving many of them mad. The penitentiaries were successful, however, in inflicting punishment and keeping prisoners away from society—which, people felt, was on the whole a bargain.

Ted Conover, writing in Vanity Fair about the psychological horrors of solitary confinement.

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