Long before United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denounced the “human toll” of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons in his concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala this past June (see “Eight Principles for Reforming Solitary Confinement” in the Fall 2015 issue of the American Prospect), Dickens reached the same conclusion. Dickens found that our system of “rigid, strict, solitary confinement” was cruel and wrong” in American Notes, his report on his travels in America in 1842.
Dickens was already a big deal when he visited the U.S.—the most widely read writer in English on both sides of the Atlantic. He wanted to see our bustling democracy, one that he imagined was free of the vices of England’s class system and cultural snobbery. But Dickens was famously disillusioned by what he found: bad manners, an intrusive and horribly dishonest press, public opinion (even in the North) that was primarily indifferent to slavery; and, last but not least, publishers pirating his copyrighted works. “This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination,” he wrote a friend.
Even so, Dickens made the standard stops for a famous literary tourist, such as factory towns, schools, hospitals, asylums, and prisons—including the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. A visit that ignited Dickens’ zeal for prison reform.
Eastern opened in 1829 and was designed to implement the 19th-century American “Silent System,” which was total solitary confinement in cells 12 feet long by seven feet wide and lit by a small skylight 16 feet above the inmates’ heads. When a prisoner arrived, he was stripped, hooded, lectured by the warden, and brought to his cell. He did not emerge from that cell until his sentence was over.
“He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception, he never looks upon a human countenance or hears a human voice,” Dickens later wrote in American Notes. “He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the meantime dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”
Dickens urged his American readers to abolish the Silent System: “Nothing wholesome or good has ever had its growth in such unnatural solitude, [and] even a dog … would pine and mope and rust away beneath its influence.” However, this argument for common sense and common decency have fallen on deaf ears. Although Eastern ended its solitary confinement practices in 1913 and shut down in 1970, the soul-destroying methods of isolation and deprivation it pioneered are still the standard in America’s prisons.
We need to abolish these practices once and for all.