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Penitence: The Face of Prison Reform

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Jessica Bernal


ESEM- Play in The City


Penitence: The Face of Prison Reform

          In the early 19th century, America was still a fledging country in the world. Just a century from having Independence, yet it expanded and thrived quite expeditiously. The Industrial Revolution made a big impact on the country and it engaged several people to immigrate to America and start a new life full of opportunities. As a result in the increase of population and wealth, crime rates also boomed. Crime in the 19th century was at a high peak and consisted of robbery, assaults, and murders.

         America, just embarking on itself as a new country, hadn’t thought nor dealt with its most vital issue of the moment, criminals. Who would capture them? And exactly how would they be punished? Notorious criminals were walking around the dark-lit streets with no apprehension. During the 19th century, there wasn’t an effective approach to penalizing delinquents. If they were caught, those who caught them in the act would probably also be the ones penalizing them some way or another. At times, most delinquents would also either be transported to another country or hanged publicly to enforce stop to all crimes to citizens of towns.

           During the 19th century, religion, among other influential factors took part in shaping America. According to William Kashatus in The Inner Light and popular enlightenment: Philadelphia Quakers and charity schooling, 1770—1820, “Quaker benevolence inspired a plethora of reform activities including abolitionism, prison reform, and most relevantly, charity schooling.” As people got together and conversed about ways to deal with criminals, religion took into effect in their ultimate decisions. Quakerism, one of the most influential religions during the 19th century helped shaped the decisions made on imprisonment.  

            Eastern State Penitentiary was built in hopes of aborting the early 19th century ineffective ways of dealing with criminals such as ill treatment and public hangings, which were among the methods used for criminal justice. “The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change.”

         Prisoners of Eastern State Penitentiary were sent there for reform far more than as a way of punishment. Isolation was a big factor of it all in order to keep them away from the influence of others and provide them with time to reflect upon their bad decisions, “ isolation became a symbol for progressive, modern principles.” Additional punishments would be implemented in case a prisoner would go against these principles, but they would also be rewarded and praised if they followed good conduct.

            Eastern State Penitentiary’s ways of reform were quite controversial. Those who were intrigued about it would visit and question its method’s of discipline. Among those was Charles Dickens, whom thought of the place to be quite dark, inhumane, and that its prisoners would conceive madness rather than reform.

            Although many critiqued Eastern State Penitentiary’s ways of dealing with Punishment as inhumane and cold, research shows that the Quaker method of reform was far more successful of having less criminals in society than today’s way of imprisonment. Today’s prisons are quite opposite in which they allow for inmates to speak to one another and participate in activities together. Rather than have isolation, one of the big problems prisons of today face is overcrowding. Prison cells were built for one and now most have two or three in one cell. Doesn’t leave much space to reflect on the prisoner’s decisions.

            The cost of maintaining prisons of today compared to in 1970, the final years of Eastern State Penitentiary, has also increased immensely by nearly 981%. The growth of prisoners in Philadelphia have also had a significant increase by 770% compared to the number of prisoners in 1970 which were about 6, 500 inmates ^5 in which the population of Philadelphia has only increased by 7%.

           Most prisons of today don’t encourage much reform and regret on inmates’ decisions, except maybe solitary confinement. But, even then there is a lot more crime in today’s society than before in the 19th century. Prisons of today restrict the outside world distractions but they don’t stop inmates to create their own distractions in prison. Prisons are meant for criminals to have a space of solitude to reflect, not a place to find distractions.


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