Some things don’t work

Eastern State Penitentiary was built as a monastic experience. Originally designed to house 250 prisoners on the outskirts of Philadelphia, it opened in 1829. The prisoners were kept separate. They weren’t allowed to speak. Their single hour of daily recreation took place in the tiny private yard behind each cell, surrounded by tall walls so they wouldn’t encounter another person. Their meals were passed through a small slot in the door.

Prisoners were given a single book. A Bible. The ceilings of the institution were vaulted like a church, a single heavenly portal in each cell ceiling, and the goal was serious reflection and repentance. Penitence. Hence the name, penitentiary. It was a noble goal, really, an effort to improve conditions for inmates and offer some sort of reform.

It didn’t work.

There was not much research into the effects of long-term isolation on the mental health of the inmates, and soon enough, other practicalities encroached. Prisoner 251 meant the monastic rituals ended as inmates were housed together. Rules to forbid talking became more difficult to enforce. New cell blocks were added without the reverent architecture. Eventually the notion of penitence was abandoned and Eastern State simply became a place to warehouse inmates until their sentences were served. At its peak, the prison housed more than 1,700 inmates.

It was interesting to walk through this prison that closed in 1971. It was abandoned for years and is now maintained in a state of stabilized ruin, a historic landmark preserved, but not restored. Paint peels and walls crumble even as history and stories remain. As a photographer, the visuals are enticing.

But it does us no good to observe history if it doesn’t inform our present and enlighten our future. In the nearly half century since Eastern State closed, U.S. incarceration rates have grown from 161 / 100,000 to more than 700 / 100,000. Over the same time the crime rate has moved up and down but remained essentially static.

We incarcerate people at the highest rate of any nation in the world. The others who are close to us in numbers are not countries we generally hope to compare ourselves to on most measures. Rwanda is second with 527. Cuba after that at 510. When you finally get to other western democracies, you find the UK at 154. The financial and social costs are staggering. Incarceration tips unjustly toward the poor and racial minorities and our recidivism rates are higher than most developed nations.

So what’s next? If it’s not working, what do we do?

Claudia Horwitz (p 125 in our new book) says “There are ancestral, cultural, and political legacies that survive and thrive because they’re not interrupted with some sort of searing reflective lens.”

We need to focus that lens. We need to ask tough questions. We need to ask the right questions. Not just about prison reform, but about the way we engage with one another and how we build a society that works for everyone.

Claudia continues, “Have we given in to the darker side of our nature in some unconscious way that we’re not totally aware of? Have we been complicit? Do we really want to do that? I’ve seen this pattern over time: We have become less willing to put the best possible scenario in the center and to aim for that. I think we’ve started to settle.”

Do we really want to do that?

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