Historically Speaking: For Punishment or Penitence?

Fifty years ago, the Attica uprising laid bare the conflicting ideas at the heart of the U.S. prison system.

The Wall Street Journal

September 17, 2021

Fifty years ago this past week, inmates in Attica, New York, staged America’s deadliest prison uprising. The organizers held prison employees hostage while demanding better conditions. One officer and three inmates were killed during the rioting, and the revolt’s suppression left another 39 dead and at least 89 seriously wounded. The episode raised serious questions about prison conditions and ultimately led to some reforms.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the founders of the U.S. penal system had intended it as a humane alternative to those that relied on such physical punishments as mutilation and whipping. After the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin and leading members of Philadelphia’s Quaker community argued that prison should be a place of correction and penitence. Their vision was behind the construction of the country’s first “penitentiary house” at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in 1790. The old facility threw all prisoners together; its new addition contained individual cells meant to prevent moral contagion and to encourage prisoners to spend time reflecting on their crimes.

Inmates protest prison conditions in Attica, New York, Sept. 10, 1971

Walnut Street inspired the construction of the first purpose-built prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened outside of Philadelphia in 1829. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and slept, worked and ate in their cells—a model that became known as the Pennsylvania system. Neighboring New York adopted the Auburn system, which also enforced total silence but required prisoners to work in communal workshops and instilled discipline through surveillance, humiliation and corporal punishment. Although both systems were designed to prevent recidivism, the former stressed prisoner reform while the latter carried more than a hint of retribution.

Europeans were fascinated to see which system worked best. In 1831, the French government sent Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to investigate. Having inspected facilities in several states, they concluded that although the “penitentiary system in America is severe,” its combination of isolation and work offered hope of rehabilitation. But the novelist Charles Dickens reached the opposite conclusion. After touring Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, he wrote that the intentions behind solitary confinement were “kind, humane and meant for reformation.” In practice, however, total isolation was “worse than any torture of the body”: It broke rather than reformed people.

Severe overcrowding—there was no parole in the 19th century—eventually undermined both systems. Prisoner violence became endemic, and regimes of control grew harsher. Sing Sing prison in New York meted out 36,000 lashes in 1843 alone. In 1870, the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline proposed reforms, including education and work-release initiatives. Despite such efforts, recidivism rates remained high, physical punishment remained the norm and almost 200 serious prison riots were recorded between 1855 and 1955.

That year, Harry Manuel Shulman, a deputy commissioner in New York City’s Department of Correction, wrote an essay arguing that the country’s early failure to decide on the purpose of prison had immobilized the system, leaving it “with one foot in the road of rehabilitation and the other in the road of punishment.” Which would it choose? Sixteen years later, Attica demonstrated the consequences of ignoring the question.

WSJ Historically Speaking: The Many Meanings of May Day



The Law of Non-­‐Contradiction states that it isn’t possible to be both Y and Not-­‐Y at the same time—which suggests that the law never encountered May Day, the public holiday celebrated on May 1,  which both is and isn’t a celebration of summer. May Day owes its origins to the ancient festivals—from the Roman Floralia to the Celtic Beltane—that celebrated the first plantings of the season and the coming of the solstice.

May Day owes its origins to the ancient festivals—from the Roman Floralia to the Celtic Beltane—that celebrated the first plantings of the season and the coming of the solstice.

By the end of the Middle Ages, the day had become one of the most important on the calendar. Just as the fir tree has become a popular symbol of Christmas, the flowering hawthorn—also called the May tree—became the sacred emblem of summer. (When Shakespeare wrote, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” in his famous Sonnet 18, he meant the tree, not the month.)

Continue reading…

The Sunday Times: The friction making Baltimore burn is not race but class

Photo: Skitter Photo

Photo: Skitter Photo

The riots in Ferguson, Missouri, last year were provoked by racism. No rational person could argue otherwise after a black man was shot dead by a white police officer. The facts speak for themselves. This small suburb adjacent to the port city of St Louis has only 21,000 residents, two-­‐thirds of whom are black. Yet its officials are almost without exception white — from the 94% white police force to the white mayor, the white police chief and almost all-­‐white city council.

In Ferguson’s case, at least, one answer to the institutional imbalance is relatively easy to see: encourage more people to vote in local elections and they will have more say in the outcome. A mere 6% of black voters took part in the 2013 local elections. It stands to reason, if more people within the community are involved in its decision-making processes there is a greater chance that the right kind of change will happen from within.

Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: A Night at the Theater Often Used to Be a Riot



Before the era of sky-­‐high ticket prices, the theater functioned much like a public park: a communal space where all social classes could come together. The drama onstage was often just a backdrop for the public theater being enacted by the audience. Political venting, social protesting and even rioting were common occurrences—especially in springtime, when the warmer weather let open-­‐air theaters resume business.

The Nika riots in 6th-century Byzantium (so dubbed because the rioters chanted “Nika,” meaning “conquer” or “win”) remain the deadliest in theater history.

In 532 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Justinian, the two political factions—the aristocratic Blues and the plebeian Greens—unexpectedly united to protest against new taxes during a public spectacle at the Hippodrome. Using the storied arena as their base, the rioters managed to burn down more than half of Constantinople before Justinian had the Hippodrome surrounded and every exit blocked. His soldiers proceeded to slaughter everyone inside. Contemporary accounts claimed that the death toll exceeded 30,000. After that, public theater of any kind was strongly discouraged by the Byzantine authorities.

Continue reading…