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The role of religion in prison reform

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Don't like the government's proposed crime bill? Blame the Quakers.

Well, not literally. But the roots of our modern prison system go back to 19th-century efforts by that peaceful group, otherwise known as the Religious Society of Friends, to reform U.S. and British prisons.

Back then, prisons were terrible places. They were filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden and dehumanizing. Their main purpose was punishment and retribution, not correction or rehabilitation.

The plight of men and women suffering in prisons in the United States and Great Britain alarmed the Quakers, who lobbied tirelessly for better conditions for inmates. Some proposed an alternative form of incarceration based on solitude and reflection. Their hope was that inmates, given enough time alone to think about their misdeeds, would become penitent and decide to change their ways -- hence the word penitentiary, which we still use today.

To prove their theory, American Quakers persuaded the state of Pennsylvania to open a new prison based on these principles. The state agreed; in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was opened in Philadelphia.

It was not a welcoming place. In fact, it was the opposite -- dark and foreboding, designed to exhibit "as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters," according to its creators.

The idea was to make prisoners so miserable they would want to change their ways. To accomplish this, they were confined in their small cells 24 hours a day with nothing to do, and no reading materials except a Bible. Talking was forbidden and they weren't allowed to communicate with each other. The only sound, besides the clanging of the doors, was ministers walking through the halls preaching sermons.

Elements of the Quaker model were imported to other countries. The first penitentiary in Canada was built in Kingston, Ont., in 1835, and many more were built across the country until the end of the 19th century. In Canada, prisoners were required to work during the day but were confined alone in cells at night. Silence at all times was strictly enforced.

Despite their good intentions, the Quaker experiment at Eastern State Penitentiary failed. After Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842, he wrote that he while he was convinced the Quakers meant well, he was equally sure "those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution do not know what it is that they are doing... I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Ultimately, problems of mental illness and overcrowding forced Eastern State officials to abandon the idea of complete isolation. But some of the ideas it promoted, including the design -- with cellblocks radiating from a central guard tower -- remain today.

One book that examines the way Quakers and other Protestants attempted to reform prisons in the U.S. in the 19th century is The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, by Jennifer Graber, a professor at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.

Graber concludes that while the prison reformers were well-meaning, they ended up creating a penal culture that "not only allowed but actually demanded" inmates' suffering -- a literal furnace of affliction intended to rehabilitate them and make them pure. Their efforts, she notes, contributed to the development of the modern penitentiary and prison system, with all its problems and challenges.

Graber thinks we can learn something from the failed Quaker experiment at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Those early reformers, she says, "wanted an alternative that was more humane," but ended up creating a system that was more "punitive and not rehabilitative." If we want to avoid a similar situation today, "we need to fundamentally rethink the entire system and consider what a rehabilitative program might look like," she says. "It might be something other than incarceration, at least for some offenders."

Almost two centuries later, we're still conflicted about the best way to deal with offenders. Some call for harsher and longer punishment for a wider variety of crimes. Others think we should explore alternatives to incarceration in order to restore criminals to society. Among the latter are today's Quakers, who have put considerable distance between themselves and their 19th-century forebears. Today, Quakers are well known for advocating for ideas such as restorative justice and fewer prisons.

The problem of crime is complex; there are no easy answers. But thinking about the federal government's proposed omnibus crime bill, I wonder if it isn't time once again for people of faith to think about new ways to deal with offenders.

After all, if the roots of today's criminal justice system can be traced back to the efforts of religious reformers long ago, maybe it's up to religious groups to help find new ways to deal with crime today.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2011 J13

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