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.
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.’”
The religious note in Rush’s appeal is not incidental. Most of the members of the Philadelphia Society were not readers of Hume. They were devout Christians (many were Quakers) who believed in the suppression of evil through communal intervention. The quiet of Quaker meetings met the isolation of Rush’s reformatory in the silence of the prison cell. In penal solitude, the inmate would be freed from every influence but that of God—who intervened by way of an “inner light,” the conscience—and His intermediaries, in the guise of Christian visitors. But even Dr. Rush, himself a Christian, did not think that “the solitary influence of reason” was enough to guarantee good conduct. Physician and churchman alike agreed that the reverence of the religious service and the remoteness of the cell were the right ways to protect the community from moral corruption, and turn the delinquent from his or her error.
This union of Enlightenment philosophy and fervent Christian belief in the conception of the prison was not unique to Philadelphia. The very word “penitentiary” can be traced to the deeply religious English prison reformer John Howard, who directly inspired Rush. Howard, who borrowed the design of his cells from a disciplinary building in the Vatican, had strong opinions about the necessity of solitude for true repentance. Those views found another famous proponent in the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Bentham ultimately judged solitary confinement too cruel for his Panopticon prison, but, though himself an unbeliever, he made unabashed use of the religious model, even insisting on including a pastor among the few officers in his design.
There is something of a tribal, pastoral attitude towards danger, purity and taboo at work in these cloistered prison yards of the late eighteenth century. In relatively small, homogenous societies, sin and wrongdoing could, it was thought, be easily identified and cast out from the community—just as, a hundred years earlier, Puritans had excised the Quakers from their settlements with whippings, scourgings and executions. In retrospect, it is astonishing how quickly the narrative of rehabilitation came to replace the harsh ways of policing American communities practiced by both religious and secular authorities. After independence, Puritan and Quaker cities alike still sought to remove delinquent behavior, but now through a sort of enforced penance, keeping the criminal under the close watch of the community.
Eighteenth-century models like Rush’s, which explained crime as the contamination of an otherwise pure social body, were less relevant to the polyglot, multitudinous cities of the second half of the nineteenth century. The industrializing metropolises of the North had long since ceased to resemble the homogenous pastoral towns of the founding generation. Accordingly, the metaphorical language of reform began to change. Christian responsibility was now invoked to muster volunteers onto the new battlegrounds of sin: slums and prisons. Rather than delinquency as such, the enemy was “intemperance,” a religiously charged word that the old elites frequently used to describe what they imagined to be the insatiable appetites of the new (largely Catholic) immigrant classes for drinking and procreation.
Despite this changing social landscape, the cultural and religious background of the prison reformers stayed very much the same. Zebulon Brockway, whose Elmira Reformatory (opened in 1876) was to the second generation of prison builders what the Eastern State Penitentiary had been to the first, is an exemplary case of the mixed genealogy of American punishment. Brockway’s mother and father came from old Connecticut Pilgrim stock. His father, a child of the enlightened eighteenth century, refused religious rites on his deathbed. His mother, a devout Protestant, encouraged the faith that would culminate in Brockway’s midlife evangelical conversion.
The balance between reason and religion was central to Brockway’s deeply influential ideas about how and why to incarcerate criminals. In describing the aim of rehabilitation Brockway wrote that “we must invade the will of those committed to our charge and determine their behavior quite outside their own election.” To perfect such a “penological science” would require “the dismissal of … old doctrines” such as belief in an anthropomorphic “passionate” God and human free will. This was an outright attack on Puritan theology in the guise of an explication of the theory of penal reform. Many early religious reformers—expressing a cornerstone of Protestant theology—believed that God cared about individual human lives, including the lives of criminals. According to Brockway, He does not.
The second error of the religious reformers, though it was an error not limited to believers, was to suppose that criminals are in full control of their own actions and choices. Brockway insisted that human behavior was a product of its surroundings, not of a good or evil will. This matched what was becoming a widely held opinion among late nineteenth-century Progressives—that communities are constituted by their environments. Urban blight could be traced to the insalubrious conditions of the slums and settlements. Crime should be explained by external factors. This broad shift in social thought required a reconsideration of what soul-craft and reform were meant to do, and with what means they could be accomplished.
Silence was not sufficient to purge the slums, and solitude had proven itself to be impractical. Prisons that had been built with the goal of intense intervention in the lives of a small criminal class now found themselves strained to capacity, with four or more people crammed into the cells that had been carefully sized for a single penitent. Brockway’s solution was to treat the prison as a healthy society in miniature. Within his reformatory, he constructed an extensive system of classes, punishments and rewards. Along with religious consultation, educational and mental-health services became major drivers of behavioral modification. This system allowed for the design and execution of highly individuated courses of corrections. Brockway often mentions the “soul” of a prisoner in his memoirs, but it is almost always in the context of moral and practical education. He is markedly skeptical about the religious role of the innate voice of conscience. “Christian character can be cultivated,” he claims. In fact, “it can come only thus.”
The abandonment of the old penitential techniques was not only a theological process. The nascent field of psychology, and its cousin, neurology, also exerted significant pressure on prison administrators. What had always been a porous border between the insane asylum, the medical clinic and the penitentiary prison now meant that the methods of reformers in all three areas increasingly answered to the same sources of expert opinion. Within the walls of the prison the idea of “individualized treatment”—that a perfect course of reform could be devised for every convict—became the guiding principle of prisons in theory, if not always in practice.
The admixture of religious motivation and scientific method, which had characterized the modern prison from its moment of birth, continued well into the twentieth century. Once the idea of the prison as a perfectible society—a “college on the hill” that could be controlled in ways that teeming industrial cities never could be—caught on, the most relevant question became just what activities, classification systems and behavioral interventions would produce a well-socialized soul. This problem of means, however, is a purely technical challenge, which one of the parties in the mixed marriage of faith and knowledge was much better suited to meet than the other. Not surprisingly, it was that party which soon gained the upper hand in the American penal partnership.
By the mid-twentieth century, Zebulon Brockway’s reformatory system was a shell of its former self. Convict labor, which had provided many of the carrots and sticks for his prison society and its baroque classification systems, was increasingly under attack, first from organized labor, and then from deindustrialization. The Catholic immigrants of Ireland, Italy and Poland had been replaced in the industrial underclass by black migrants from the South, a population the American North was unwilling to assimilate, and, implicitly, less inclined to rehabilitate. A series of racially charged prison riots from the mid-Fifties to the Attica uprising in that busy year of 1971 made the need for change inescapably obvious. The prison regimes of the Progressive era did not address the realities of post-World War II American life.
The assault on rehabilitation came from at least three directions. Most cutting may be the criticism of the 1971 report of the Quaker Friends Service Committee, with which we began our story. The report pleads the case of prisoners “who will no longer submit to whatever is done to them in the name of ‘treatment’ or ‘rehabilitation.’” Prisoners were often the victims of extrajudicial police violence in their homes and neighborhoods, the target of prejudice in the courtroom and the unwilling patients of supposedly therapeutic carceral regimes. In light of the ugly truth, the authors find hope for a better prison system to be naïve, rejecting the “whimsical touch of Utopianism” common to earlier prison reformers.
This penal pessimism is, I would like to argue, a logical consequence of the disenchantment of punishment. The scholars and activists who wrote the report, some themselves incarcerated, viewed the idea of rehabilitation as an experiment in social engineering that had failed according to its own social-scientific standards. Probation, parole and the discretion of judges and wardens had turned out to be opportunities for the expression of systemic racism, caprice and cruelty. Rehabilitation, from this perspective, is stripped of the veneer of religious or spiritual duty—it is a technical process, and a proven failure. The Quaker report accordingly averts its eyes from the character or “soul” of the convict. “The law should deal only with a narrow aspect of an individual, that is, his criminal act or acts.”
The crucial characteristic of a punishment under this view is its retributive function—whether it adequately fits the crime. This emphasis on “just desert” and the rule of law dovetails closely (and unintentionally) with the language of “law and order” that conservative politicians had adopted as a response to the civil rights movement and the social disruptions of the late Sixties. The two extremes thus unknowingly groped their way towards political consensus around sentencing policies that aimed at punitive clarity rather than judicial discretion, a consensus that ultimately provided the logic for mandatory minimums and even “three strikes” laws.
The progressive left also attacked rehabilitation in its psychological guise. Brockway’s “penological science,” a blend of religious motivation and scientific technique, had become linked in the public imagination with Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Decarceration” and “deinstitutionalization” became intellectual watchwords of resistance to the paternalistic, or even totalitarian, aspects of psychiatry and neurology in the service of the state. This demand that the punishment fit the crime found a mirror in philosophy departments, as rehabilitative theories increasingly gave way to the dominance of retributive theories of punishment. By the beginning of the Seventies, these themes had coalesced into an almost unanimous opposition to rehabilitation across the political and intellectual spectrum.
The shifting demographics of the inmate population also played a role in the declining role of religion in prison planning and administration. By the Sixties, the most important religious presence in American prisons may well have been the Nation of Islam. In a series of court cases, the right of black Muslims to prayer spaces became associated with the wider prisoners’ rights movement. The religion of prisoners, rather than being a means to their reintegration with society, became, in the minds of white voters and white politicians, a marker of just how separate from society the prisoner class really was.
Progressives continued to agitate for prison reform, but the prisoners’ rights movement and its successors took their emancipatory cues from Marx and Fanon rather than from the Social Gospel of the Progressive era. In her call for the abolition of prisons, Angela Davis abandoned not only rehabilitation, but the entire notion of a penal system, asking would-be reformers to “do the ideological work of pulling apart the conceptual link between crime and punishment.” The right, for its part, did not abandon the religious vocabulary of punishment at all—it merely returned it to its pre-Enlightenment roots. The language of law and order, especially as it was combined with the concept of “responsibility,” played on tropes of sin and vice that lay deep within the American moral memory. Even the “war on crime” harkened back to the urban “crusades” of the nineteenth-century missionaries. The vengeance that victims’ rights movements demanded (and that harsher sentencing legislation promised), the return of the death penalty to the front pages: all of this, whether motivated directly by religion or not, fit an earlier religious logic, the very logic that Benjamin Rush and his contemporaries had tried to overcome with the idea of the penitentiary.
Of course other Western democracies, as secularized as our own (and often more so), have remained committed to rehabilitation. This means that the failure of American prisons cannot be attributed merely to the evacuation of religious faith from the formulation of public policy. The problem seems to be rather that, in the rush to abandon the rehabilitative ideal, whose religious elements were no longer persuasive, the secularized reformers reduced rehabilitation to a simple accretion of techniques, whose efficacy could be falsified (as the Friends Service Committee report tried to do), and whose moral framework was racist, capitalist, sexist and homophobic (as Davis and the prison abolition movement remind us). By the twentieth century, trends in American intellectual and political life meant that the technical had fully occluded the religious origins of rehabilitation. The failure of prisons to achieve their aims was all there was left to see.
It is hard to disagree with either the 1971 Quaker report or the prison-abolition movement in their judgments about incarceration in America. These critics miss, however, the nature and ambition of the earlier attempts at reform. The religious motivations at work in the design of the two major regimes of soul-craft produced in this country, the penitentiary movement symbolized by Eastern State and the reformatory movement symbolized by Elmira, were not only technical solutions, and did not only reflect prejudices and practices; they represented the cultural attitudes of administrators, politicians and voters about how to rejuvenate the American community.
In our mixed multitude of a republic, punishment has always carried with it anxieties about the meaning of our shared public life. A Puritan harshness has jostled with a Quaker hopefulness. A faith in divine election has sat alongside a devotion to Enlightenment nostrums about science and equality. In their attempts to construct a perfect site for soul-crafting, reformers acted out their hopes about the broader nature of American democracy. The contribution of religion to American punishment was about faith not only in God, but also in the idea that penalties should bind the punished person to the community rather than rend him from it.
To ask whether soul-craft “worked” or not is to miss the point. No technique has yet been found that can identify and reverse the causes of crime, ex post facto. Nevertheless, in Pennsylvania and in Sweden, in Elmira and Amsterdam, societies have devoted often extraordinary amounts of thought and treasure to proving to themselves that even the most errant citizen is still the responsibility of the commons. In this country, it has often been faith that produced the moral imagination necessary to understand that fact, and the motivation necessary to act on it. As we aim to fix, or abolish, these erstwhile houses of penitence and correction, we must do so with an awareness of what their builders believed they could do.