The history of solitary confinement shows it to be largely an American invention. In a blog post that accompanied the March 2009 publication of Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article on solitary confinement, Mary Hawthorne described its genesis at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century. This Quaker-inspired experiment in incarceration eliminated corporal punishment (whipping, stocks, and the like) and called for “the complete isolation of the prisoner from all human society.”
The system, Hawthorne writes, was “ironically and perversely, a reform attempt, based on the notion of “penitence” (hence “penitentiary”), conceived by the Philadelphia Society for Ameliorating the Miseries of Public Prisons.” Prisoners were kept alone in their cells to work, read the Bible, and contemplate their crimes. To ensure that they did not know precisely where they were, and did not catch sight of other inmates, their heads were covered with hoods whenever they were taken from their cells.
When Charles Dickens toured the United States in 1842, he witnessed solitary confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary outside Philadelphia, and wrote about it in his travelogue, “American Notes for General Circulation.”
Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful. Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound. Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired….He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years….
And though he lives to be in the same cell ten weary years, he has no means of knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the building it is situated; what kind of men there are about him; whether in the long winter night there are living people near, or he is in some lonely corner of the great jail, with walls, and passages, and iron doors between him and the nearest sharer in its solitary horrors.
As Hawthorne relates, Dickens visited several prisoners, including one who was about to be released after two years in solitary confinement. Dickens remarked to his guide that “they trembled very much.”
“Well, it’s not so much a trembling,” was the answer—“though they do quiver—as a complete derangement of the nervous system. They can’t sign their names to the book; sometimes can’t even hold the pen; look about ’em without appearing to know why, or where they are; and sometimes get up and sit down again, twenty times in a minute. This is when they’re in the office, where they are taken with the hood on, as they were brought in. When they get outside the gate, they stop, and look first one way and then the other: not knowing which to take. Sometimes they stagger as if they were drunk, and sometimes are forced to lean against the fence, they’re so bad:—but they clear off in course of time.”
After what he witnessed at Eastern State Penitentiary, Dickens wrote forcefully about what he clearly considered a cruel and inhuman form of punishment.
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.