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In 1971, the political-action arm of the American Quaker movement, the American Friends Service Committee, published its report on the state of crime and punishment in America. According to the report, Struggle for Justice, it was time to acknowledge that the grand experiment to reform criminals through rehabilitative programming and discretionary sentencing had failed. Of earlier Quaker efforts at prison reform, including the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, once a flagship symbol of Christian humanitarianism and American criminal justice, the report mourned that “out of the best intentions in the world can grow an increase in human misery.”

Whether by fate or coincidence, two other noteworthy events in incarceration took place in 1971. Eastern State Penitentiary, as if cowed by the rebuke, closed its doors; and, less tangibly, the rate of imprisonment in the United States began its rapid climb up a hockey-stick-like curve toward mass incarceration. The Quakers, to be sure, were not the reason that, by 2010, almost 6 percent of American men were or had at one point been behind bars. This progression, from the triumphant opening of the first Jacksonian asylums to the current penal strategy of warehousing as many people for as long as possible, may however illustrate a general truth not only about the rise and fall of American faith in the prison, but also about the rise and fall of faith itself as an ingredient in the administration of American justice.

The philanthropic aims of prison reformers are frequently treated as a velvet glove over the iron fist of social control. But the religious motivations of the figures who drove the development of the penitentiary were central to aspects of American punishment, despite the secular character of the contemporary critique of our carceral society. Earlier reformers often had very clear ideas about what prison was for. The gap between their certainty and our confusion has been explained in terms of an expanding judicial bureaucracy, toxic racial politics and the socioeconomic realities of decimated urban minority communities. But if we want to understand how two hundred years of soul-craft came to disappear in what seems like an instant—and why, in 1971, no new generation of prison directors rose up to create a new form of rehabilitation in place of the old—we need to think above all about religious faith.

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The Eastern State Penitentiary, like most other prisons in the first wave of penitentiaries, was the product of a mixed marriage. The immediate force behind the prison’s construction was the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded by, among others, Dr. Benjamin Rush. An Enlightenment intellectual and signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Rush turned to the prison to solve the problem of punishment in a republic of free and equal citizens.

Influenced by the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Rush was worried by public punishments like whippings, executions and forced labor. He feared that corporal punishment caused unhealthy sympathies to form around criminal behavior, leading to the arousal of antisocial passions. Rush imagined that a combination of religious study and labor at a remove from the public eye could both reform criminals and strengthen the bonds of communal sympathy in a healthy way. “Methinks” he wrote, “I already hear the inhabitants of our towns and villages counting the years that shall complete the reformation of one of their citizens … the universal shout of the neighborhood is ‘This our brother was lost, and is found—was dead and is alive.’”

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