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Phil's Rambling Rants
October 7th, 2007
10:35 pm


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"Cruel and Unusual"

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Date:October 8th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
When I was in Philadelphia I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison in America. When it was built just after the Revolution, it was on the outskirts of town, but now it's a massive hulk in an otherwise undistinguished neighborhood. It hasn't been occupied in fifty years, and you can simply go in and wander around its halls and cells and open spaces.

What makes Eastern State interesting is that it was constructed by Quaker utopians exactly on the lines you suggest in your second paragraph. The term penitentiary is not a figure of speech: the purpose of the design was solitary confinement to induce penitence, to make the prisoner reflect on his crime. The setting wasn't particularly inhumane -- each cell had a door to a small private yard outside where a prisoner could exercise. One book to read, of course: the Bible.

And yes, when you'd served your sentence, you were free to go. As a result they don't have information on how well their spiritual/psychological approach worked to prevent recividism. But it wasn't more than a few decades before the prison population grew too large to give them all the full penitential experience. From then on it was just a jail.

If you're ever in Philly, go check it out. I think you'd find the place raises a lot of troubling questions. Which was, of course, its job.
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