The Essay

The campaign against the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons has garnered growing attention the past few months. Arguments against the practice focus on the negative impact of prolonged solitude on the mental health and well being of prisoners.[1] Reports suggest that 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in the U.S. at any given time.[2] 

This debate about solitary confinement is nothing new. It’s as old as the penitentiary itself, as indicated by Philadelphia prison history.


Old Walnut Street Prison

Inspired by their new found independence from British rule, elite Americans quickly got to work transforming laws and policies at the state and local level. Philadelphia served as the nation's capital for a decade from 1790 to 1800. The city nurtured cutting edge developments in education, publishing, medicine, and governance. In 1790, Philadelphia established the nation's first penitentiary, replacing corporal or capital punishment with a term of confinement, ideally in quiet reflection, where prisoners would have time to "repent" for their crimes. 

Was solitary confinement a necessary condition for proper penitence? The question was hotly debated. Most people sentenced to Walnut Street Prison were ordered to spend a percentage of their term in solitude. The time ranged from one-twelfth to one-half of the sentence. From 1790 until Eastern State Penitentiary was opened in 1829, the challenge of reformative incarceration was the lack of cells to keep people in isolation.  

Life inside Walnut Street Prison was a chaotic disaster for many reasons, from lack of sufficient food and clothing to corrupt guards who favored some inmates in exchange for bribes. Insufficient means were provided to keep prisoners engaged in work. Defiant inmates resisted orders. Far from creating repentant, submissive subjects, who returned to society forever transformed, there was a high rate of recidivism. Evidence suggests that some prisoners became more corrupted while incarcerated.

In the 1820s, debate over the failings of the penitentiary reached a feverish pitch. Prison inspectors, and judges who oversaw the system, seemed at a total loss for how to fix their expensive, failing project. Criticism came from every direction.

The Sex Hunter
At this time, one man from New England was on a witch hunt for what he felt were immoral and reprehensible conditions in prisons from Philadelphia to Virginia, and everywhere in between. Rev. Louis Dwight of Boston turned his attention to the one thing that no one could ignore: men were having sex with men in prison. Unwittingly, Dwight's campaign gave Pennsylvania officials a way out.

Until 1790 the penalty for sodomy in Pennsylvania was death. That year the state abolished the death penalty and replaced it with a maximum prison sentence of ten years. Very few people were ever arrested or convicted for sodomy, or attempted sodomy. The burden of proof was rather high (two witnesses had to testify to seeing the act). And the will to prosecute sex related crimes was then rather low. Only a handful of men were sentenced to Walnut Street Prison on sodomy or buggery convictions. There is no evidence that they were isolated from other male prisoners. This seemingly blasé attitude toward male same-sex desire among inmates may have in fact encouraged it.

Sodomy was described as an "unnatural crime." Inmates were said to "mutually corrupt" each other, especially at night. Numerous theories were offered explain why men would turn to each other for sexual gratification. Overcrowded prison cells was one theory. The men’s lack of "moral sentiment" and "physical restraint" was another. Others pointed to prisoners being denied "all the enjoyments of society."

Massachusetts officials were hung up on the idea that imprisonment itself compelled men to this sinful path, and condemned the practice of simply placing randy men together: "Better even that the laws were written in blood, that they should be executed in sin." Pennsylvania officials didn't really care why men desired each other, especially while the entire prison system was in chaos. But they seized upon this critique, the idea that men--crowded together in cells--corrupted each other at night. These officials launch a full-scale campaign in favor of complete and total solitary confinement.

Essex Gazette

Except from Essex Gazette, August 4, 1827. American Antiquarian Society.

In Pennsylvania and the U.S. more generally this was a crucial moment in the history of the penitentiary. Pennsylvania officials pioneered the penitentiary system and were desperate to see it work. They argued that solitary confinement would keep men from corrupting each other at night. This helped officials secure the funding from the state to complete construction of Eastern State Penitentiary, their new prison modeled on complete and total solitary confinement of all its inmates. Reformers in England chastised their American counterparts for embracing a practice already known to drive men mad. But no Americans really bought the idea that mental health was of greater concern than moral reform.

Two hundred years later, the story has been flipped on its head. Solitary confinement is widely practiced under a diverse range of circumstances, for all classes of inmates. Arguments against the practice focus entirely on mental health and cruel and unusual punishment. Prison reforms have long-since abandoned concerns about either the sex lives or morality of prisoners. Non-consensual sex between men has become a right of passage in prison life, at least in the popular imagination, if less so in reality. The threat of sexual assault is widely regarded as an informal part of punishment. Consensual sex between men remains a persistent--if overlooked--fact of institutional life.

Lewis Dwight Grave Inscription

Inscription, grave of Rev. Louis Dwight.

The Author
Jen Manion, PhD, is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College and author of Liberty's Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). You can find her book here

[1] Garrett Zehr, “In Open Letter to President Obama, Groups Push for Solitary Confinement Reforms.” Solitary Watch: News from a Nation on Lockdown. October 3, 2015. Accessed Oct 3, 2015 from:

[2] FAQ: What is Solitary Confinement?” Accessed October 3, 2015 from

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