This Religion Is Backing Criminal Justice Reform but Helped Invent Solitary Confinement

After designing the most foreboding prison in the U.S., Quakers became outspoken advocates for change.

The central observation tower at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia; inset: a 17th-century Quaker meeting. (Photos: Mark Makela/Reuters; Bettmann/Getty Images)

Mar 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

They once helped conceive of one of the most notoriously inhumane prisons in U.S. history, but you wouldn’t know it based on what a group of Quakers did in Washington, D.C., this week. More than 400 college students gave up partying to spend their spring break pressing members of Congress to reform the criminal justice system. The trip to lobby for the passage of the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, as well as the House’s Recidivism Risk Reduction Act, was organized and partially funded by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker advocacy group.

“Mass incarceration really resonates with a lot of young people around the country,” Jim Cason, FCNL’s associate executive secretary for strategic advocacy, told TakePart. “We’re about getting young people engaged in the political process and particularly in listening and advocating in conversations with people with whom they might not agree on all issues.”

Roughly 25 percent of the student participants are Quakers, according to Cason, and for more than two-thirds, it was their first time in Washington lobbying.

“I want Congress to unlock justice because I know too many of my friends who’ve been locked up for petty crimes that just don’t matter,” Aurelio Anderson, a recent college graduate and a Quaker from Tallahassee, Florida, explained in a video produced by the group.

Also known as “Friends,” Quakers are famous for their pacifism—opposing slavery, the death penalty, and war. But the religion’s leaders in the 18th and 19th centuries also had a hand in creating an overcrowded, filthy, and damaging U.S. prison system that Quakers nationwide are now working to reform.

Quakers advocated for a system that was more than punitive—one that emphasized rehabilitation. Yet, in doing so, they pioneered the concept of solitary confinement, and in 1829 designed one of the country’s darkest penal spaces: Eastern State Penitentiary.

Today, the prison is a designated National Historic Landmark and has been transformed into a public museum. Yet the Philadelphia prison was designed to be so miserable that prisoners would want to better themselves.

“Let the avenue to this house be rendered difficult and gloomy by mountains and morasses,” wrote Quaker reformer Benjamin Rush of his vision for the penitentiary in 1787. “Let the doors be of iron, and let the grating, occasioned by opening and shutting them, be increased by an echo that shall deeply pierce the soul.”

Each inmate was confined in a tiny cell with only a Bible to read, isolated from human contact. The prison, recognizable for its panopticon design featuring a central observation tower from which spokes housing isolation cells radiated, became a model for hundreds of other global prisons.

“The idea was that you would sit there and meditate on your sins,” Ruth Flower, associate executive secretary for the FCNL’s legislative program, told TakePart. “Rehabilitation fits with the deep Quaker belief that everybody has the capacity to change and grow—which is why things like life without parole and the death penalty are contrary to our beliefs.”

But the Quakers’ plan was flawed. Mental illness, exacerbated or provoked by total isolation, created a harsh and violent environment. The Quakers were quick to acknowledge their failed experiment and started advocating for change. By 1913, the prison had abandoned the solitary confinement system, but the practice remains widespread in the U.S. today.

“There’s a continuing openness to learning new things, and it’s in character for [Quakers] to change and evolve,” Flower said. “To stick with something we did so long ago is very arcane.”

Flower, who has been working on criminal justice reform and the abolishment of solitary confinement with her Quaker meeting group for decades, is hopeful that Congress will pass the bills lobbied for by the students this week.

“That openness [to change] is not in character for Congress, and we’ve really been celebrating that Congress is taking another look at this issue,” she said. “There’s a lot more consideration of what actually works and what improves peoples’ lives, and that’s really worth celebrating. I’m hoping these bills will pass.”