Prisons in the United States are as old as the Republic. Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, first locking people up in 1775, began the country’s centuries-long, ongoing experiment in incarceration. It wasn’t until the following decades, however, also in Philadelphia, that men convicted of crimes were placed in small, mostly isolated cells in conditions approximating those in most modern penitentiaries.
The new take (small cells for individuals or pairs) on an old idea (dungeon-like lockups), championed by Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush, came, in part, from the “Quaker-inspired belief that criminals could benefit from spiritual reflection, which could lead them to see the errors of their ways and live a life devoid of crime,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen writes in her new book, Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration. As Eisen explains in this timely work, a quiet spot for spiritual reflection is a far cry from what the modern American penitentiary system offers to those convicted of (or sometimes only charged with) a crime. Today the 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails suffer from a variety of humiliating and oppressive conditions, including economic exploitation, sexual assault, indefinite solitary confinement, substandard medical care, disgusting food, filthy living conditions, gross neglect, cruel and unusual punishment, and even what many describe as slave labor.
Men, women, and children today are not being sent to prison for the benign goal of helping them “see the error in their ways,” but for a variety of reasons, including social control, racial animus, asserting class divisions, and the nebulous ideas of justice and rehabilitation—a list to which we can now add corporate profit.