Solitary Is an Old Story

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Solitary Is an Old Story

by Nancy Jervis & Dick Leigh

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 3, May 1974, p. 26 – 28

While the techniques and terminology of behavior modification present a flashy mix of space age technology and verbiage, the basic ideas have been prevalent in America for many years. And the overriding contradiction of behavior modification, between the social cause of “antisocial” behavior and the correction of behavior through therapeutic treatment of the individual, has been a major factor in this history. 

The idea that criminal behavior is changeable developed in America. Along with their worldly goods, the early colonists brought Calvin’s protestantism, and with it the basic idea that evil was innate and predetermined in a few unfortunate and unreformable individuals. From this attitude flowed their codes of criminal punishment: execution or banishment for serious crimes, occasional maiming, and the stocks for the least serious offenses. But the social and economic changes surrounding and following the American revolution quickly produced a revolution in attitudes towards social “deviants.” Along the Atlantic coast, population growth, urbanization (the population of New York City quintupled between 1790 and 1830) and industrialization spelled both the death of the colonial Calvinist tradition and the rise of a proletarian street culture, replete with taverns, gambling and prostitution. As traditional communities were split by new class divisions and waves of immigrants impeded the stabilization of new cultural values, crime grew apace. 

Prisons and prison reform grew apace also, guided by a surprisingly familiar set of theories on the causes of criminality. On the one hand, criminality was seen as rooted in the social conditions of the day, with the corrupting influence of the bawdy street society standing forth as the most direct cause of the crime wave, and poverty (in keeping with the protestant work ethic) as the chief indicator of bad moral character: pauperism, although ” …not in itself a crime… is not unusually the result of such self-indulgence, unthrift, excess or idleness, as is next of kin to criminality” stated a 19th century New York legislative assembly. On the other hand, the first theory to ascribe criminality to causes located in the individual appeared, as lax parents were blamed for contributing to the formation of evil character. 

Thus society, especially working class society, was considered a perverting influence on the individual. Prison then emerged as a kind of alternative institution, dedicated to resocializing those individuals who had been corrupted by the evils of society. These ideas arose first among the reform-minded Philadelphia Quakers, whose high intentions reached fruition in the Eastern Penitent-iary (get it? l. Here, since evil companions were responsible for the prisoner’s incarceration in the first place, total solitary confinement and absolute silence, with only the Bible to read, were seen as the logical way to bring the lost soul back to the path of industry and sobriety. In such prisons, the sentenced were led to their cells blindfolded. They saw no one-not even their guards—throughout their confinement, and were allowed no newspapers, letters or visitors. 

But even in those days, behavior modification had its critics; the fact that it was even being attempted made the American prison system a world famous social experiment, and a “must see” attraction for European tourists like de Tocqueville and Dickens. Dickens, in fact, reacted quite strongly: 

In the outskirts (of Philadelphia J stands a great prison. called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the state of Pennsylvania. The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effect, to be cruel and wrong. In its intentions, I am well convinced that it is kind, humane and meant for reformation; but I am convinced that those who devised this system of prison discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what they are doing… I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs are not so palpable to the eye, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. 

But behavior modification was then, as now, an experiment, and reformers in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania exchanged angry counter-proposals concerning the merits of solitary confinement versus the new “congregate” system. The Pennsylvania system was too expensive to enjoy widespread acceptance, and the “congregate” system, first introduced in Auburn, New York, was far more common. Here absolute solitary confinement was abandoned, permitting far cheaper feeding and housing of the prisoners, and more productive use of their labor in the prison workshops. Also, no visitors were allowed as in Pennsylvania, since friends came from the same unfortunate class as the prisoners. All the prisoners had extensive workshops, and prisoners paid a sizeable share of their upkeep through their labor. In fact, the coincidence between the first burst of growth in the American economy with its attendant demand for cheap labor, and the concurrent appearance of the concept of the reformation of the criminal is almost certainly not accidental; the “worth” of the individual really was high in those days—they needed all the individuals they could get.1, 2

The concept of criminality as disease and prisons as the treatment reached maturity when the 1870 Congress of the American Prison Association unanimously passed a resolution in favor of the indeterminate sentence. Since criminals were sick. they reasoned, there was no reason to release them from custody until the “treatment” had demonstrably worked; clearly the particular crime committed was only an indicator of the diseased state, and had little bearing on row long it would take to effect a cure. Over the next few years the states acted on this recommendation, and this, rather than a desire to make the sentence fit the details of a particular crime, is the source of the “maximum” and “minimum” sentences written into most laws today.3

This ideological high point, however, marked the end of the early prison reform movement. The reformers, caught between overcrowding, the failure of their programs to actually rehabilitate people, and uninterested state legislatures, effectively gave up the ghost. By the late 19th century the prisons had become human warehouses, concerned only with internal order and security. No doubt other causes, such as the massive unemployment brought on by the first great depression of 1877 were contributing factors in the trend towards warehousing. At this point, the indeterminate sentence became a potent weapon for maintaining internal discipline. Time served thus came to reflect behavior in prison far more than it did the crime committed. 

If such an approach to criminal behavior has been inadequate in principle and a failure ever since it was introduced, why does it still enjoy widespread popularity? Among prison officials, the answer is reasonably clear: faced with prisons overflowing with vocai, angry and often highly politicized inmates, any excuse to isolate troublemakers (read “leadership”) and scare the general prison population into docility is welcome. As in the nineteenth century, however, programs designed to meet these ends generate instead increasing numbers of rebels.

For more information on the National Behavioral Research Center in Butner, North Carolina and on other behavior modification programs write to Michael Deutsch of the Chicago People’s Law Office, 21 East Van Buren, Chicago, Illinois.
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  1. American Friends Service Committee, Struggle for Justice, New York: Hill and Wang. 1971.
  2. Rothman, David, The Discovery of the Asylum, Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
  3. American Friends Service Committee, Struggle for Justice, New York: Hill and Wang. 1971.