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The life in the penitentiary

Yancy's picture

Samuel Brewster stayed in his cell, with cold walls and endless silence. On the ground, lied some cloths and other component parts of pairs of shoes, but he did not want to make the shoes. He just sat to the wall. Twenty minutes, or more time passed. He did not know. Suddenly, he stood up and rushed at the door, with hands knocking heavily at the iron door: “I! I will not make another pair!”(Buried Lives, 106) He angrily repeating his words again and again, but no one answered. He knew, maybe he would be brought to the dark room, but he did not care. No one talked to him. Isolation, this was the most terrible thing he met here. In such an isolated cell, so silent that seemed there was only one man, that was him, in the world. Meals arrived on time, but they could not change anything except told him another day came. He did not know how many days passed or how many days left, actually he just wanted to listen or talk or other ways of communicating. He had something else such as making shoes or reading to do, but he did not want to follow the rules made for prisoners, for shoes a month, it seemed enough for him. He was not interested in the words in the reading material because they could not change the situation here, could not bring more voices here. He was bored with the repeating days the endless silence and the useless books or shoes, trying to break the situation by ‘denying work, damaging work supplies, destroying cell furniture, rebuffing and manipulating religious counselors , and attacking overseers’. (Buried Lives, 107)

This penitentiary, owned the most ‘gentle’ and ‘humane’ new system at that time, used isolation as the weapon to reform those inmates here. From the visit, I notice that the cells are small, having only one low, locked door and a little window to send meals. The air is so oppressive. The walls are so thick that it is impossible for an inmate to hear voices of his neighbors. The communication is limited strictly. The designer of this system, John Haviland drew an ideal, beautiful enough of this new system: he believed that because of isolation, those inmates would read bibles in their cells, do the work and think over their wrong behaviors before carefully, then, when they came back to the society, the society would accept them.

I think John must not stay in one cell for a week or stand on the prison’s side to think of the problem. The failure of his design is obvious, because he did not understand those inmates and overlook some basic needs of them.

Those inmates stayed in the prison because they broke some rules of the society, why the designer believed that they would follow the rules in the prison? When the prisoners in the society, the laws limited them, however, when they were in the prison, without laws, without common punishment, they could do everything they want. The isolation at that time was not the implement to limit them and reform them, but the stimulants of their resisting. When a person stayed in an isolated cell all the time, speaking only to himself, failing to communicate, facing the same things every day, he would be insane. The prisoner would not follow the rules. So, after a short peaceful time, they would be angry and thought over the ways to break such silence. For example, the walls were not made of iron like the door, and they could ‘burrow holes between cells’ to speak to neighbors. They had enough time to do so and also, their neighbors may have the same idea and help him. Oversees were not as many as prisoners so it was easy to conceal those behaviors. The prisoners were looking forward to communicating, because the loneliness and silence extended every minute. They may talk to themselves in the beginning, but the repeating days could not provide enough topics to talk and the easiest way for them to change the situation was not reading moral books or making shoes, but directly broke the barriers. Also, the system contradicted to one of the original goals of the design: John wanted those inmates would have improved moral views and the society would accept them, but after few years in such isolated area, was it easy for those inmates to enter the society again? Their skills did not improve in the prison, maybe except the skill to make shoes.

The new design of prison is totally a failure; prisoners were forced to stay in the small and isolated cells to ‘introspect’, it was not humane actually, and was useless because the prisoners would spend most of the time to burrow the walls or shout in to pipes to talk.

Janofsky, Jennifer L. ""Hopelessly Hardened"" Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America. Ed. Michele Lise Tarter and Richard Bell. Athens: University of Georgia, 2012. 106-23. Print.