Solitary confinement as reform. (Ehm!)


This is a post about the history and reform of the penitentiary system in the United States. Although in another sense it is about how the driving force for the reform of prisons was actually one of the most regressive and inhumane of all practices. Solitary confinement.

The first real penitentiary in the United States was the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia in 1798. It was converted in 1790 to include a penitentiary house. It featured a Quaker programme of reform that isolated the more serious offenders. If they behaved well they were able to earn the privilege of work with the other prisoners who were housed communally. Before we delve into the evils of isolation it is worth looking at the other problems with the Walnut Street Jail. Aside from the confinement it was awful. No where close to the Quaker ideal. There was one practice called Garnish where the new inmates would be shaken down for money by the other prisoners and the money would be used to buy rum from the jailer. New prisoners lacking in money had to give up clothing and go around nearly naked.

In 1822 on the outskirts of Philadelphia construction began on the Eastern State Penitentiary which advancing this Pennsylvania approach to reform. This Quaker approach to penitentiaries was lauded for being more humanitarian than previous approaches to confinement. I think what is overlooked though is the tremendous evil that is isolation at the core of the Pennsylvania system. Prisoners had their heads covered with a black hood so that they would never know the other inmates in the prison. Despite the rumours of mental illness caused by isolation and in large part the failure of the isolation system overall the prison nonetheless became an international sensation.Overcrowding meant that the system of solitary confinement, thankfully, fell apart very quickly.  As a result Philadelphia became the world centre of prison reform.

Auburn model

 The Pennsylvania model was replaced by one that formed in 1821 at the Auburn prison in New York. The Auburn system viewed the prolonged isolation of the Pennsylvania model as cruel and so only confined prisoners at night and made them work during the day to help pay for the cost of their imprisonment. The Auburn system was also known as the ‘silent system’ because prisoners were not even supposed to talk to one another. The problem with the Auburn system as with the Pennsylvania system was that both systems were full of shit. The Pennsylvania system just led to a spate of desperate pardons, increasing in number each year, in an attempt to protect the system of solitary confinement. This overcrowding was meant to be alleviated and the progressive programme continued by the Auburn prison and system.

At Auburn they couldn’t even get solitary confinement right where they tried to do it.There was a scandal involving a female prisoner becoming pregnant in solitary confinement. Add to that the fact that the woman in question later died of complications during pneumonia. Namely repeated beatings! A system that was supposed to be based on quiet moral reflection and penitence was poisoned . The prison administration completely undermined the system by having guards patrol secret passageways behind the walls in the prison workshops, in moccasins, so that the inmates could never be sure whether they were under surveillance. This approach seems to me to represent just the sort of distrust and deceit in human nature that the system was aiming to remove.In 1822, five prisoners died at Auburn prison after serving one year in solitary confinement. Incidents like these caused many countries to abandon the practice of solitary confinement.

Solitary Confinement


It is most ironic that the major prison reform movement of the 19th Century was driven by, to my mind, one of the most regressive of all penal practices  Ironically the system that was conceived of by the Quakers and Anglicans as a human reform (addressing overcrowding, squalid conditions and brutal labour) was one of the  most inhumane innovations of the 19th Century. Solitary confinement of the prisoner was supposed to invited quiet moral reflection and to keep men apart from the moral contagion of other prisoners. What actually happens during solitary confinement though is nearly the exact opposite. ‘A French critic once noted that ‘this absolute solitude is beyond the strength of a man; it destroys the criminal. It does not reform, it kills.’ In 1890 the Supreme Court Criticized solitary confinement for its detrimental effects. Solitary confinement has been shown to produce sensory deprivation deprivation stress especially in prisoners who are borderline or overtly psychotic. In a study conducted by Dr. Stuart Grassian and Dr. Nancy Friedman it was shown that that prisoners who have not shown any psychotic tendencies have been known to become ‘grossly psychotic’.

The effects of solitary confinement can produce Reduced Environmental Stimulation syndrome of RES syndrome. Sufferers of RES can lose the ability to communicate and suffer from amnesia. Often they sit with a glazed stare. These symptoms are consistent with an earlier syndrome that was suggested called Ganser’s syndrome in which the prisoner suffers from ‘acute confusional hallucinatory dissociative episodes’. In the 1980’s Dr. Stuart Grassian conducted study of fifteen inmates in solitary confinement in Walpole prison in Massachusetts. These prisoners became hyper sensitive to noises and smells. the sound of a toilet or tap would put them in agony. One inmate became convinced that he heard guards outside his cell talking cutting his leg off. Several prisoners reported that they saw the walls move in their cells. They harboured revenge fantasies were prone to lose their temper easily and towards random acts of violence towards themselves and others. One inmate slashed his wrists while in confinement but could not remember doing it. It seems that far from encouraging quiet reflection the isolation causes prisoners to become more disturbed and violent.

In 1870, penal reformers from the United States, Canada, South America and Europe attended the first national congress on penitentiary and reformatory discipline in Cincinnati, Ohio.This congress led to the foundation of the National Prison Association which later became known as the American Correctional Association (ACA). It also led to the of principles of prison discipline which included 37 articles of a generally progressive bent. It lead to what was supposed to be a more progressive approach and in 1876 the first reformatory,Elmira reformatory, got started . It, mercifully, ended the isolation approach to reform and focused more on educational programmes, skills training, etc. It is unfortunate, however, that as with Walnut Street Jail, the Eastern State Penitentiary and Auburn this prison’s ideals were corrupted by the darker aspects of human nature. The inmate monitors abused their power, traded in contraband and ran a ‘sex ring’.

‘The eighth amendment and psychological implications of solitary confinement’ –  21 Law and Psychology Review 271 1997

Sara A. Rodriguez, “Impotence of Being Earnest: Status of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in Europe and the United States” (August 25, 2006). bepress Legal Series. bepress Legal Series.Working Paper 1627.


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