Thursday, September 10, 2015

Lafayette on solitary confinement

These respectable friends of humanity have thought to do still better [than other prison reformers], and by resorting to solitary confinement, which leaving the prisoner to his reflexions, or to those which may be suggested to him, and separating him from other convicts, offers more chances of his amendment. In consequence, and as no expense frightens the Americans when they are once convinced of any great public good, they have built at a great cost, near Philadelphia, an immense building with its court yards and cells, where every prisoner may be separately shut up, and where from the form of the edifice, an easy and continual watch may be kept up.

This superb establishment was still unfinished, when general Lafayette, accompanied by the committee appointed to do the honours of the city went to visit it, and were received by the respectable directors and managers, who explained to him the improvements made. One must have courage to venture upon contradicting men so virtuous and experienced, as generous in design as in the execution of their benevolent works. The frankness and conviction of the general, overcame his repubnance, and with all the regard and respect which were due, and which his personal situation rendered still more necessary, he represented to them that solitary confinement was a punishment which should be experienced to be rightly appreciated; and that the virtuous and enlightened Malesherbes, who during his administration under the monarchical government of France, had ameliorated the condition of prisoners of state, regarded solitary confinement as leading to madness. The general observed that during his five years' captivity, he had passed an entire year in solitary confinement, and another part of the time seeing a companion but during a single hour, and he added, smiling, that he had not found it to be the means of reformation, since he was imprisoned for wishing to revolutionize the people against despotism and aristocracy, and passed his solitude in thinking upon it, without coming out corrected in that respect. He made some observations on a too assiduous watchfulness, such for example as that he had been subjected to, during the early part of his captivity, when he was constantly guarded by a sub-officer who remained in sight of him, and was relieved every two hours.
A. Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; or Journal of a Voyage to the United States (trans. John D. Godman) (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1829), vol. 1, pp. 154-54, cited in Steve Inskeep, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 144

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