Sunday, March 30, 2014

Republicans Like It When Prisoners Are Majority Democrats

Paul Kahan. Eastern State Penitentiary: A History. Charleston: The History Press, 2008.

Eastern State Penitentiary started operating in 1829. It was considered overcrowded 33 years later. For its first 94 years, both men and women were incarcerated there.

Some early administrations believed that prisoners should be handled strictly with all aspects of their lives under their complete control. Some treatments were so harsh that the penitentiary personnel were criminally prosecuted.

Prisons in the 18th century were poorly funded, crowded, and squalor conditions where many prisoners faced disease and death. The death penalty was commonly used which kept the prison population down.

John Howard wrote about the bad conditions of prisons in Europe which led to a prison reform movement. Efforts began in the 18th century to give prisoners healthier food, not charge prisoners for basic necessities, and to stop torture.

The Walnut Street Jail constructed in Philadelphia in 1780 as a jail and became the first penitentiary in 1790 in the United States.

The Pennsylvania legislature passed the Wheelbarrow Law in 1786. This law required prisoners to work. They wore garish clothes to be distinct as prisoners. They were chained to cannonballs while working. Still, in the first two years of this law, 27% of the prisoners escaped.

The Walnut Street Jail had 63 prisoners in 1792, 145 in 1796, 151 in 1809, 206 in 1809, and 304 in 1811. It was an initial goal that prisoners were in separate quarters yet this was no longer possible.

A group of people including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush began working on prison reforms beginning in 1787. This led to legislative enactments in 1789, 1790, and 1794, Among the reforms were separating male prisoners from female prisoners and separating misdemeanor prisoners from felony prisoners.

Robert Vaux continued prison reform efforts in the early 19th century. In 1803, the Pennsylvania legislature created a workhouse to alleviate overcrowding at the Walnut Street Jail. The Arch Street Jail was opened in 1817 for this purpose.

Overcrowding remained a problem at the Walnut Street Jail. Prisoners rioted in 1817, 1819, and 1820. It was later discovered that prisoner administrators were stealing from prisoners’ wages

Industrialization increased urban growth beginning in the 1820s. This brought more crime and violence to cities. Riots  became a common means of political expression.

Western State Penitentiary opened in 1826. In 1828 the legislature required penitentiaries to have prisoners work. Western State was not designed for that.Thus prisoners there worked together.

It was the goal of Pennsylvania prisons known as the Pennsylvania System, from 1790 to 1841, that prisoners be kept in solitary confinement. It was determined this led to insanity. After 1841 it was the system that prisoners be kept separate but not in solitude.

Eastern State Penitentiary had its first two female prisoners in 1831 with two more added eight months later They resided in an area separate from the men and worked in laundry and as coos.

In 18850, 43% of Eastern State prisoners were Black while they were 28% of the state population. Some of the disparity resulted form a juvenile hall that took only whites.

The Eastern State warden was required to speak with every prisoner daily. There were 385 prisoners in 1837.

Of 2,176 prisoners sent to Eastern State from 1826 through 1846, 51% were sent for larceny, 11% or burglary, 7% for horse theft, 4% for forgery, and 4% for using counterfeit money.

A work requirement then was considered important for prisoners as it was believed criminals were often too lazy to seek honest work. It was believed that learning how to work would rehabilitate them. New York began the Congregate System in 1816 where prisoners worked together during the day and were separated at night. They worked in an industrial setting and were not allowed to talk.

The New York legislature approved constructing Sing Sing prison using prison labor in 1825. Since cells were only for sleeping, their size was smaller than in other prisons. The strict discipline of the New York prisons was considered in opposition to the Pennsylvania prison system.

People visited Eastern State. There were 114,400 visitors between 1862 and 1872.

Prisoners were punished with cold baths; being placed in straightjackets. iron gag, or tranquilizing chair; or denial of privileges. One prisoner was held up a wall naked in freezing weather as 12 buckets of water were dumped on top of him, causing icicles to form on him.

The Pennsylvania legislature conducted several investigations into Eastern State. In 1834 to 1835, a special committee investigated whether the warden used prison labor for his personal benefit, permitted too harsh of punishments which led to one death and allowed immoral contacts between prisoners. An overseer’s wife was rumored to have stolen food from the prison and with having sex with guards and prisoners which caused an outbreak of venereal disease.  65 witnesses testified The warden claimed he and many of his accusers had religious differences that led to the charges. The legislative committee concluded most of the allegations were without foundation. It determined there could be no criminal charges for personally using prison labor. Future laws prohibited the practice.

Charles Dickens interviewed several prisoners. His writings indicated that the solitary confinement of prisoners tended to break them mentally.

In 1843, Richard Harding voluntarily was placed into Eastern State even though he had not committed a crime. He requested the solitude. He left, writing “I shall dread the very name of th is place”, and never returned.

In 1852, one prisoner escaped after pressing a suit by putting the suit on and walking out the front door.

Conviction rates increased in the 1860s. There was also an increase in sentences. There no longer was enough room for the practice of one prisoner per cell. There were two or three to a cell. By 1881 there was solitary prisoners in 40% of the cells. By 1887 there were as many as four to a cell.

An increase in the professionalization of the police and the judicial system led to more convictions. Homicide conviction rates were 33% in the mid-1850s, 42% in the late 1860s, and 63% in the late 1890s. In the 1850s, 5% of those convicted of homicide were sentenced to over 12 years imprisonment. Those sentenced to over 12 years for homicide increased to 8% in 1880  and 16% in 1901.

n 189, the legislature passed a law allowing a reduction in a prisoner’s sentence for each month of good behavior.

There is conflicting information on prison escapes from Eastern State in the 19th century. There is one report that nine escaped and six were recaptured. A warden testified in 1897 there had been five successful escapes in the prison’s history. It may be possible that some were recaptured after these numbers were provided.

In 1905 the legislature approved a separate facility for the mentally ill prisoners. It opened in Wayne County in 1912.

In 1909, the legislature approved the Indeterminate Law which provided for minimum nd maximum penalties. Parole Board thus had discretion on how much time was served.

In 1883, the legislature prohibited prisoner contracted labor. This did not immediately effect Eastern State as it did not contract prisoners for labor. Another 1883 law required prison-made goods to be stamped “convict made”. In 1897, the legislature passed the Muchlbronner Law which limited the percent of prisoners would could be used to manufacture brooms, hollowware, and brushes at 5% of the prison population,  that mats could be manufactured by at most 20% of the prison population, and that all else could be manufactured by at most 10% of the prison population. This legislation was supported by the Society for the Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons which later became the Prison Society. Organized labor also objected to prison labor undermining their wages.

In 1890 there were 291 idle prisoners at Eastern State. This rose to 795 in 1893 to 1,156 in 1894. Some prisoners equated solitary confinement without labor to torture.

The separate confinement of prisoners was prohibited at Eastern State by the legislature in 1913.

Many early 20th century Eastern Penn wardens did not believe rehabilitation was possible. Solitary confinement became a punishment rather than the norm in an attempt at rehabilitation. Prisoners intermingled and portions of the prison could not be monitored by guards.

Robert McKenty was an Eastern State warden who believes in rehabilitation. He gave some self-governance to the prisoners. The prisoners reacted with protests and riots. Inmates told a grand jury about brutality from guards and poor food.

Governor William Sproul had Assistant Attorney General William Gawthrop investigate Eastern State. The prisoners’ complaints were discounted and it was recommended the warden take firmer measures against prisoners.

There seemed to be a sharp rise is narcotics smuggling to prisoners in the 1920s. The Prisoners’ Relief Society claimed that guards were doing the smuggling. Prisoner drug dealing gangs would beat up guards who got in their way,

A riot lasting five weeks occurred between two rivals gangs that composed one fifth of the prisoners. Most of the rest of the prisoners urged to be kept locked in their cells during the rioting.

There were numerous incidences of prisoner violence to other prisoners.

Blacks and homosexuals were housed in segregated areas of Eastern State. These areas received worse treatment than did other prisoner areas.

Several dogs were pets at Eastern State. One was a dog donated by Governor Gifford Pinchot because it had chewed sofa cushions. A false story emerged that it was sent there for killing Mrs. Pinchot’s cat.

The belief that prisoners could be rehabilitated returned to Eastern State in 1953. There had been worse rioting at Western State involving over 1,000 prisoners with guards taken as hostages. There was milder rioting at Eastern State when prisoners in punishment cells set fires to protest being apart from others. Eastern State removed its punishment cells

Nationwide, there were over prison riots in an 18 month period in 1952-3.
This was more than the total in the previous quarter century.

Governor John Fine signed legislation created the Bureau of Corrections within the Justice Department. Prior to the this, prisons were operated by their Board of Trustees. The emphasis was moved from punishment to corrections.

Eastern State began operating a diagnostic and classification center. This would determine the prisoners’ path and would consider socioeconomic background, prior arrest history, educational attainment, work experience, health concerns, etc. About a quarter of Eastern State prisoners were housed in  this new classification center.

Prisoners were psychologically evaluated and provided counseling. Temple University Hospital became affiliated with this program.

There was a “goon squad” of guards who did not believe in rehabilitation who illegally punished prisoners. The squad ended in 1956.

Nation of Islam members were imprisoned nationwide in the 1940s for refusing military service. They aggressively recruited new members within prisons. This also created solidarity and group protection for many Black prisoners who joined.

From 1904 to 1964 prisoners were racially segregated in Eastern State. Most guards were white Several instances of violence caused by racial differences resulted.

It was decided to close Eastern State in 1969. It closed in 1971.


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