Good Intentions Gone Bad

In a compelling new study, historian Jennifer Graber investigates Protestantism's involvement in America's penal system in the first half of the 19th century. Her sobering conclusion is that the well-meaning Christians who were involved in prison reform contributed to the creation of a penal culture that "not only allowed but actually demanded" corporal punishment and inmates' suffering.

Graber argues that many Protestant prison activists, including the nation's first prison chaplains, believed that prison should aim to reform prisoners, not simply punish them. But there wasn't agreement about how to achieve prisoner reformation. Quaker Thomas Eddy, who ran New York's Newgate prison from 1797 to 1804, tried to offer inmates, in Graber's phrase, "a completely positive experience." He forbade corporal punishment, and provided prisoners with healthy meals, a clean environment, and "wholesome activities." Even solitary confinement, which was meted out only to Newgate's most obstinate inmates, was, in Eddy's eyes, not so much a punishment as an opportunity for transformation: In the silence of solitary, prisoners would finally be able to hear the Inner Light to which, Quakers believed, all people had access. In other words, Quakerism's generous theological anthropology underwrote a penal practice that many 21st century human rights activists (including the American Friends Service Committee) classify as torture.

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July 2011 Sojourners
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