ARC 331 Forum 02: Social Reform
Having engaged with the basic material provided for this lesson, study your assigned project (the Kirkbride plan or Eastern State Penitentiary). Each pair in the group will have different functions, all contributing to the forum as a whole.
- Eastern State 2: Taylor, Van Bruggen, Wahlfeld, White, Wills, Wise
- by Saturday midnight, provide a brief (150-200 word) assessment on the subject. In short: did it work? What impact did it have on the population housed within it? Make sure to provide a brief note explaining where you found your information.
- by Monday at 1 PM, add to the conversation begun by your peers. How can you clarify or challenge their ideas? How do the ideas embedded in these nineteenth-century plans compare with more recent ideas you can find about architectural solutions to the initial problem (incarceration or treatment of mental illness)?
- by Wednesday at 1 PM, review the contributions of your colleagues and provide summative thoughts that draw the conversation to a conclusion, or, if appropriate, what new ideas or questions are raised in the forum?
In short, the Eastern State Penitentiary system did not work as a system to reform prisoners to the standards of humanity required by the state. The design of the penitentiary by John Haviland was a new way to sperate inmates into solitary confinement. Even though the design of the building fascinated and inspired others to build in a similar manner it was later found that this method of housing prisoners did not change their education or knowledge any more than past jails did. The Quaker idea of solitary confinement failed and even caused abuse and inhumane acts to be administered to prisoners by the prison guards. Guards administered horrific punishments to those caught breaking the rules. Many punishments lead to pain and even death. Looking at the design of the penitentiary alone the new design and system was ground breaking because of how each cell provided (no matter how poorly) water and sewage systems as well as access to “fresh air” to hundreds of inmates which was a new marvel and engineering feat.
I appreciate how you stated that the idea of having a sewage system and fresh air was revolutionary, during the same period the Millbank Prison was established in England one of the primary features was the inclusion of a water-closet, or toilet, in every cell. Additionally, Millbank allowed prisoners to talk and even share cells. Compared to Eastern State Penitentiary, this 19th-century prison more closely represented the prisons of today (with admittedly some striking differences). How could these prisons exist at the same time but be so vastly different in the living conditions of the prisoners?
Desmond: I think one of the main possible reason’s for the difference in quality of prison life is the fact that Eastern State wasn’t designed to be a structure which facilitates community, it was designed for isolation. The additional cell-blocks which were added on over time slowly deviated from the organized plan for lack of space, turning the prison into somewhat of a labyrinth. It became easier for both ill-intentioned inmates and guards evade surveillance and “get up to no good.”
All in all, while Eastern State, its layout and the theories behind such, were understood to be ineffective at reformation, the continued use and repurposing (the switch from solitary to more communal confinement) despite this knowledge proved to be the greater crime here.
For me, this raises questions about the appropriateness of the reuse of certain structures, particularly those that have been designed to cater to a particular social (or asocial) function.
On some more research, I found out that historically in the 19th century Britan faced a problem in deciding the plan for a new penitentiary. Originally proposed with a Panopticon plan in 1799 by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, Parlament decided to opt to a William Williams’ proposed plan in 1813. Even then the plan proved too confusing to navigate, paired with numerous disease outbreaks and overall unsupportable cost Parlament downgraded the prison to that of a holding depot for convicts being transported to Australia. Eventually, Parlament declared a prison by the name of HM Prison Pentonville. A familiar prison with a familiar plan, this prison used the “separate system” best the best-known example being Eastern State Penitentiary. HM Prison Pentonville is still an active prison, however, I don’t believe the prison continues to use the separate system
Solitary confinement to create regret in criminal’s hearts and bring about repentance surely sounds like a more compassionate and potentially effective solution than typical corporal punishment. Not to mention this forced reflection being paired with evangelism seems to set up a potential to create real change in the hearts and minds of those outside the law.
However, this Pennsylvania system came under scrutiny by figures as prominent as Charles Dickens for the possible side effects of solitary confinement. Whether they truly knew the effects of solitary confinement or were just suspicious of the “too good to be true” nature of this Pennsylvania System, these critics were onto something.
Though studies in this area have some severe pitfalls (lack of control groups, contrived settings, pre-existing conditions, etc) researchers have discovered solitary confinement in any significant capacity could leave an inmate dealing with psychosis, depression, digestive issues or hypertension. Perhaps it was best that the Pennsylvania System died out.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s own historical review (with Charles Dicken’s quote) https://www.easternstate.org/sites/easternstate/files/inline-files/ESP-history-overview.pdf
NYU “Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Well Being of Prison Inmates” https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/appsych/opus/issues/2015/spring/corcoran
I find it interesting that you point out the adverse effects that solitary confinement induces on inmates. Pair this with the rise of mental institutions during this period there appears to be a frightening correlation. Additionally, to connect the Kirkbride plan which “manifest his ideas of treatment, which required fresh air and segregated populations into an architectural plan”. Although the solitary confinement aspect has long since passed in modern prisons something that struck me was the very short holding times often 1-2 year sentences with the longest appearing at 12 years for murder. The modern design of prisons has remained the same in some aspects from large outer walls guard towers, but has changed with the inclusion of commons areas and outdoor “yards”.
I find it pretty surprising that sentences were so short. I wonder if this was used as defence for the Pennsylvania system. Granted, a year is still a long amount of time to be in solitary confinement, certainly long enough for long term side effects, but it would be interesting to see what claims were made to defend the solitary confinement system.
Interesting point Desmond, I wonder if the correlation between both the rise of mental institutions and prisons at the same time was caused by a specific thought rising in people’s minds at the time as they started a new life in the “new world”. I wonder if this thought was about safety and that those who were different needed to be put away out of reach of the “normal” population. I know that we have flipped our thinking on the design of schools and even cities based on what true safety is, having more eyes on the street and thus more open environment, and I wonder what it would look like to switch this mentality for prisons too?
While the Pennsylvania system may have had its critics and pitfalls, it was seemingly a needed reform to a system that was miserably unorganized, ineffective, and in effect brewed a more organized breed of crime. Though misguided, the system was a step in the direction of order and of a more effective penal methods. Prisons are still imposing and intimidating buildings, that give off the stability of the system. We still use solitary confinement for the worst and most violent of prisoners, jails today are highly organized, and the prisoners are highly monitored and regulated, all of these are reforms that seemed to originate from the Pennsylvania system. Fortunately, prisons of today are much more psychologically palatable and allow for inmates to congregate in large corporate cells, and work jobs that help staff the prison.
It seems like the advancement of prison systems continually trade one problem for another. Each development obviously has the intentions of bettering the system but simply because of the nature of the beast those intentions can be twisted. The Eastern State Penitentiary was a step in the right direction because it separated the criminals so that fewer crimes inside the prison could be committed by prisoners, and gave the prisoners better living conditions. However, the overcrowding of cells, lax enforcement of the rules of the prison, and the corruption of prison guards damaged a system that might have worked. Prisons were originally very communal but led to lots of misdeeds between prisoners. Then solitary confinement was enforced to become a sort of a humane punishment and sentence for criminals, but like Jordan and Desmond were discussing, may be more destructive a punishment than we first realized. Now today prisons are better monitored, better staffed, and allow for some communal time for some prisoners that make a prison sentence “more psychologically palatable” as Tim put it. That said, for some people prison has become a better option than living on the street. Using prison has a means of safety, free housing, and medical attention does seem to abuse the system a little bit.
Was it overcrowding of cells that really made this plan fail? I think that the solitary confinement had a huge part of it as well as and, like you mentioned, the corruption of the guards. If prisoners were only able to be lost in their own thoughts and not able to talk with anyone ever I think we all might go crazy and if prison guards had to sit in that silence all the time with only each other to talk to maybe unconsciously their vicious acts were due to the fact that they needed something to do and the prisoners were a pretty easy target. Today people in prisons sometimes live nicer lives then our elderly or homeless so sad to see that prison is the choice for some to have a better life. I wonder if there is a better design and program for prisons today that may work better? I wonder what it would look like to build a city within a prison to help people better their lives if there would be fewer people going to prison at all and maybe we could invite to homeless to participate in programs to help them too?
1. Elizabeth & Jordan, Good introduction to the topic, recognizing the advance of providing heat and ventilation to all prisoners, and the very real problems imposed by solitary confinement.
2. Desmond: that’s an interesting comparison; it’s worth thinking about the context of the cities in terms of political approaches to crime and punishment, and the influence of reformist/religious groups in each place (as we see, Quakers held huge sway in PA). Tim, do you see 20th c approaches to confinement in the same light as the 19th c. reforms we see at ESP? There is some commonality with this discussion and what you’ll see in the forums on the Kirkbride plan: a general sense of, this was not great, but it was better than doing nothing.
3. Adam :great point about the problems that can arise from adaptive reuse (of which I’m usually a big fan), especially when a very particular function is compromised by the new activities. Then again, the solitary confinement principle was eventually understood to be so harmful that it is now a very rare approach.
I don’t deny the fact that solitary confinement is harmful and utterly inhumane. I believe that community is a core aspect of one’s being, being made in the image of the triune God who is loving community embodied. To neglect that aspect of an individual is to neglect the good creation. I suppose my perspective toward Eastern State’s practice, however, was one of grace, acknowledging the fact that it was an earnest attempt at reformatory justice.