A RISING TIDE OF VIOLENCE
Despite the utopian rhetoric surrounding prisons on both sides of the Atlantic, the realities were always far messier. Virtually from the get-go, allegations surfaced of guards taking advantage of their positions to intimidate, sexually molest, and wreak violence upon those in their custody.
At Eastern State in Philadelphia, the intimations of torture, deprivation of food to rule breakers, and guards abusing their power reached a crescendo barely five years after the penitentiary was opened, leading to state legislative hearings in December 1834. “However guilty they [prisoners] may have been, and however just may be the sentence of the law under which they suffer, the feelings of our nature revolt at the infliction of torture not authorized by a judicial tribunal,” wrote one legislator who participated in the hearings, in a book published anonymously. “Man is invested with power over his fellow man only to the extent of self-preservation and the good order of society: vengeance and mercy belong to the Deity.” Writing about the infamous iron gag, the author declared that “the pressure consequently act[s] on the chains which press on the jaw and jugular veins, producing excruciating pain and a hazardous suffusion of blood to the head. The Spanish Inquisition itself cannot exhibit a more fearful mode of torture.” He described straitjackets being sewn so tight that the necks and faces of the victims became black with congealed blood. “When undergoing this punishment, men of the stoutest stock will shriek as if on the rack.” And he referred to inmates wasting away on punishment rations of only eight ounces of bread a day.1 (Today, one of the ways that inmates in secure housing units and supermax prisons are punished for rule violations is by being fed “food loaves”: coarse, almost indigestible bricks of food in which are amalgamated mashed-up versions of the day's ingredients from the prison kitchen.)
Despite the high-flown rhetoric surrounding Pennsylvania's trophy prison, there was still, it seemed, ample room for abuse. And so, like air rushing to fill a vacuum, creative forms of torment began to flourish.