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On Isolation and Prison Reform

playcity23's picture

Eastern State Penitentiary is the most harrowing place I have ever been in. I walk into one of the wings and it’s like I have stepped onto the set of a post-apocalyptic film. The silence is so thick, it’s like pea soup. I could feel my breath whistle through my ears. Tomahawk and I stepped into one of the preserved cells. I trace the lonely bed frame and shiver as I look up to the skylight, aptly named the Eye of God. Steve Buscemi, the narrator of the audio guide we were listening to, tells me that the prison guards wore felt booties over their shoes so the prisoners couldn’t hear them stomp by. I peek out onto the row again and look at the cells with closed doors. Though I am sure my mind is playing tricks with me, I swear I can hear indistinct whispering and shuffles coming from the closed cells. I could feel the mental decay and despair the inmates felt when this place was in operation. I fold my arms over my stomach and shrink back into the cell. 

Eastern State Penitentiary is now a tourist attraction for this very reason: the place is creepy as hell. Opened in 1829, the Quaker Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was responsible for this unusually designed prison. Up until then, prisons were more like pens than anything else. Prisoners were not separated by gender, age, or degree of crime. They faced grim conditions and extreme corporal punishment or torture. Prison guard abuse was a given. Eastern State was the first prison ever to change its aim from ‘punishment’ to ‘reform.’ The system was as such: Each prisoner would be placed in cells separated from each neighbor by twenty inches of solid concrete. The aim was to eliminate all communication and distraction. The prisoner was to be left with only his thoughts. Corporal punishment was strictly forbidden. Occasionally, inmates could be visited by a priest. He would also be taught some sort of useful skill, like shoemaking. The Quakers thought that this approach of isolation would inspire penitence or true regret. He would emerge from Eastern State a reformed man, ready to live an honest life. 

Not surprisingly, solitary confinement did not so much reform the inmates as drive them to insanity. While the Quakers were the first to take a step in the right direction towards prisoner rehabilitation, the approach itself was de-habilitating. Today, extended solitary confinement is considered a form of torture by the United Nations. Scientists now know that extended isolation causes hyperresponsivity to ordinary stimuli (i.e turning on the faucet), hallucination, difficulties in thinking clearly, paranoia, intrusive thoughts, and unexplained feelings of rage or fear. These symptoms can manifest in as little as 48 hours. However, back in the heyday of Eastern State, these symptoms were ignored. In fact, prisoners were gagged and put in a straightjacket if they made too much noise. It became obvious that the system was grossly ineffective and the prison was abandoned in 1971. 

I can’t blame the Quakers for accidentally torturing their inmates: nobody predicted these psychological effects back in the eighteenth century. They genuinely wanted to help them become better men. During our tour, there was an exhibit dedicated to Guantanamo Bay. Steve Buscemi told me that isolation is used as torture there. 

We also saw a striking bar chart on the top ten nations with the most prisoners. The US of A’s bar was twice as high as the other nine. The second highest bar belonged to Rwanda. Even Rwanda’s bar was about half as high as ours. I couldn’t help wondering if our aim has deviated back towards housing instead of rehabilitation. According to Wikipedia, the recidivism rate for the New York City jail system is 65%. 

Why is the US so spectacularly bad at reforming their criminals? Maybe it’s the media sensationalism of crime, or the poisonous politics associated with terrorism, or the fact that their stint in jail prevents ex-prisoners from getting more than a minimum wage job. But then I came across an article in the Atlantic which details a remarkable Scandinavian prison that truly does inspire regret and reform in their prisoners. It is located near Helsinki on Suomenlinna Island, which is also home to a town of several thousand people. What is so remarkable about this prison is that, you wouldn’t know if you wandered into it. This is why it’s called an “open” prison. The only way you could spot a prisoner is the tracker bracelet they must wear on their ankles. The jailbirds are given a “cell” that is equipped with a TV, sound system, a comfortable bed, and a mini fridge if they have enough money to rent one. The guards wear casual uniforms with nametags and carry no visible weapon. Each inmate is given a parole officer that will scrupulously help him find work on the island, offer free counseling, free health care, and even will help him enroll in university in Helsinki. 

There are some catches, however. If a prisoner causes trouble, he/she will be sent to a conventional prison with a rigid system and very little freedom. But on Suomenlinna Island, “nothing feels unfair or unreasonable.” (source E) There is no system to rebel against, therefore when the inmate begins to wrestle with feeling of regret, he cannot pin it on resentment of the system. He mingles with unincarcerated people. He studies, works, and eats with them. Yet, the crime he has committed is what sets him apart from the citizens he interacts with. They have no inkling of this distinction; but he does. By partaking in as “free” and productive life as possible, this is the key to turning criminals from burdens upon society to valuable members of it. 

It seems to me that isolation (from both fellow humans and society) is the answer to my question. This could be why our prison system is so largely ineffective. I am not saying that all of our prisons should convert to the way the Scandinavians do it. Politics would never allow it and some of our prisoners are so messed in the mind that it would be dangerous. Perhaps we could start giving back our prisoners some of their freedom back. In Finland, an ex-prisoners record is wiped clean after five years of retaining a steady job in the private sector. We should employ this to our ex-prisoners. Give them a chance to start again, if they prove they deserve the chance. That way, we can start turning our aim from punishment to reform once more. 


playcity23's picture

Sources I Forgot to Add

A. (2008). Solitary Confinement Facts. American Friends Service Committee. Retrieved November 9, 2013, from

B. Grassian, S. (n.d.). Psychiatric Effects Of Solitary Confinement. Retrieved November 9, 2013, from

C. Eastern State Penitentiary: Overview Of Its History. (n.d.). General Overview. Retrieved November 9, 2013, from

D. The Enlightenment. (n.d.). The Enlightenment. Retrieved November 9, 2013, from  

E. Larson, D. (2013, September 24). The Atlantic. The Atlantic. Retrieved November 9, 2013, from