When Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, prisoners were to be kept in total isolation. This was seen as a humane alternative to flogging and other physical punishment. The reformers, mostly Quaker, who created the penitentiary thought that time in solitude would give miscreants the opportunity to reflect on their lives and rediscover their inner light.
ESP gave up the use of solitary confinement in 1913, but today in the US, more than
20,000 prisoners are held in isolation. The aim is no longer rehabilitation. It is purely punitive. Even back in the 19th century, when most visitors to the dark, dank, stone penitentiary in Philadelphia were impressed by the innovation, Charles Dickens thought the effects of isolation were "immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."
I'll write more about solitary soon.
The prison closed in 1971. By then it harbored a colony of stray cats, progeny perhaps of some of the pets prisoners were eventually allowed to keep. For 28 years, a local man named Dan McCloud visited the prison three times a week to feed them. (I am a cat lover, but I have to think about the prisoners who never got visits.) Artist Linda Brenner created more than three dozen cat sculptures, "Ghost Cats," that can now be found
throughout the building.
When will America's SHU facilities and Supermax and Communication Management Units be historical artifacts? Who will remember the ghosts of the men and women who suffered there?