Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Influence on Prison Design


The design of institutions is very important in determining what happens within the structure and how people relate to the environment in which they find themselves, and how they relate to each other. Architecture, particularly in buildings designed to constrain and control, can predetermine what regime can operate. The serried rows and tiers of cells reinforce the anonymity of prisoners. The contrast of the diminutive individual beside the almost monolithic scale of prison buildings also reinforces the subjugation of the individual.

John Howard observed, in his ‘State of the Prisons’ (1777), that prisoners were being housed with each other with no control over their association. He expressed concern about experienced criminals passing on criminal values like a plague. His phrase, ‘seminaries of vice’ , captured the anxieties of policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Reformers in Philadelphia, including many Quakers, read Howard as an inspiration. One of the first reforms they made to the Walnut Street Jail (1790) was to separate the men from the women. Impressed by the order and control this gave them, they designed the first penitentiaries - Western and Cherry Hill (1820) - to accommodate prisoners in individual cells. They theorised that isolation would prevent the spread of criminal values, and it would also encourage introspection and repentance. Hence Cherry Hill began to practise separate confinement, while Auburn (New York State) practised co-operative workshops run in silence in the 1850s. The ‘separate and silent’ system then returned to England through enthusiasts. John Howard was horrified. He wrote to Jeremy Bentham that he never intended such a system. He explained that he meant no more than that prisoners should have separate quarters for sleeping at night. He feared that total separation would lead a man to madness, which was what it did in increasing numbers. This eventually led to a relaxation of the systems in England and Wales by the 1880s.

The design of British prisons and their regimes was also influenced by Friends, They also followed the development of prison architecture in Pennsylvania. However the building of Pentonville in 1842 in a radial design as a model prison put other ideas of control into action in England and the success of the design persisted through the most active time of British prison building in the nineteenth century.

Other Quaker influences on the development of prison regimes include the work of William Tuke who in 1792 developed the concept of the asylum as a separate place for the mentally ill, in The Retreat in York. This helped the cause of removing such people from prison settings. In setting up the Retreat he ensured that the treatment of the mentally ill reflected their dignity as people, in sharp contrast to the severe treatment which prevailed elsewhere.

American Friends were central in the development of the idea of parole in the 1960s and the indeterminate sentence at a stage when the treatment potential of prison regimes was thought to be effective.  But by the 1990s they had become strongly opposed to the same ideas as unjust when concepts of ‘just deserts’ became more prevalent. (This argument was based on the concept that the best justice involves clear links between the offence and the length and type of punishment. The view that ‘nothing works’ in the treatment of offenders led to the ‘struggle for justice’ movement, which asserted that indeterminacy of sentence was unjust because people could serve long sentences for very minor offences, if their underlying behaviour showed cause for concern.

Struggle for Justice - the primary American Friends text in opposition to rehabilitative sentencing - was published in 1972. It proposed that authorities held too much power over prisoners under treatment. They argued against the power of parole authorities to hold someone in prison longer for what they might do rather than for their offence.  However, the outcome of their campaign was that others pressed for the ‘just deserts’ approach, resulting in longer periods of imprisonment and mandatory minimum sentences.

Many Quakers are now at the forefront of the movement to provide alternatives to imprisonment. For the past twenty-five years some Friends have been at the forefront of developing the concepts of restorative justice.

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