Solitary Confinement: An American Invention

By Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire | National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Solitary Confinement: An American Invention


Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, National Catholic Reporter


Solitary confinement as a penal practice is an American invention, intended as a humane alternative to corporal punishment. As early as 1787, many of Philadelphia's educated elite, including Benjamin Franklin, argued for solitary confinement in lieu of publicly degrading criminals with forced labor.

Believing that deviant behavior was caused by the stresses of modern society, social reformers -- many of them Quakers -- recommended removing criminals from all harmful associations. Solitude would facilitate the rehabilitation of the offender who was to live like a penitent monk in a cell, meditating on the "error of his ways."

America's first penitentiary, known as the Eastern Penitentiary or the Philadelphia Prison, was specifically designed to ensure the total isolation of its inmates. Completed in 1829, its regimen, writes David Rothman in his book, The Discovery of the Asylum, "guaranteed that convicts would avoid all contamination and follow a path to reform.... No precaution against contamination was excessive. Officials placed a hood over the head of a new prisoner when marching him to his cell so he would not see or be seen by other inmates.... Thrown upon his own innate sentiments with no evil example to lead him astray, the criminal would start his rehabilitation."

The American penitentiary system became world-renowned, and many major European prisons emulated U.S. penal policies and prison design. It soon became apparent, however, that solitary confinement did not produce rehabilitation. The Philadelphia Prison reported high incidents of disease, mental illness and death. Charles Dickens, who visited the prison in 1842, wrote, "The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. ... [The confined] is a man buried alive ... dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair."

Dr. Stuart Grassien, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and leading expert on solitary confinement, said that public scrutiny of the prisons as well as German research, substantiating the disastrous consequences of prolonged isolation, eventually led to its reduced use. "Although the Americans had been the world leaders in instituting rigid solitary confinement in their penitentiary system," said Grassien, "German clinicians eventually assumed the task of documenting its effects, ultimately leading to its demise."

In 1968 the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, located in rural southern Illinois, implemented a behavior modification program called CARE (Control and Rehabilitation Effort). …

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