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“Letters from America”: III
For those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.
We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).
This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons* was philanthropic and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.
This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.
For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.
*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.
“Letters from America”: II
Having only visited Philadelphia once before (and even then it was strictly a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary with a quick “Philly sandwich” afterwards) the city is new to me. As with any new environment there is plenty to take in and absorb, made slightly more straightforward by the traditional grid layout so beloved of cities in the USA.
Particularly striking in Philadelphia are the many signs detailing the city’s history. These cover a wide range of topics; (for instance Mothers’ Day originates in the city, the creation of Walnut Street Gaol and commemoration of the great and the good) and allow visitors to get a feel for the city.
Unfortunately, these signs tell only part of the city’s story. Like many great historical cities Philadelphia shares horrific historical problems, that of poverty and homelessness. Wherever you look there are people lying in the street, suffering in a state of suspension somewhere between living and dying, in essence existing. The city is already feeling the chill winds of winter and there is far worse to come. Many of these people appear unable to even ask for help, whether because they have lost the will or because there are just too many knock backs. For an onlooker/bystander there is a profound sense of helplessness; is there anything I can do?, what should I do?, can I help or do I make things even worse?
The last time I physically observed this level of homelessness was in Liverpool but the situation appeared different. People were existing (as opposed to living) on the street but passers by acknowledged them, gave money, hot drinks, bottles of water and perhaps more importantly talked to them. Of course, we need to take care, drawing parallels and conclusions across time and place is always fraught with difficulty, particularly when relying on observation alone. But here it seems starkly different; two entirely different worlds – the destitute, homeless on the one hand and the busy Thanksgiving/Christmas shopper on the other. Worse still it seems despite their proximity ne’er the twain shall meet.
This horrible juxtaposition was brought into sharp focus last night when @manosdaskalou and I went out for an evening meal. We chose a beautiful Greek restaurant and thought we might treat ourselves for a change. We ordered a starter and a main each, forgetting momentarily, that we were in the land of super sized portions. When the food arrived there was easily enough for a family of 4 to (struggle to) eat. This provides a glaringly obvious demonstration of the dichotomy of (what can only really be described as) greed versus grinding poverty and deprivation, within the space of a few yards.
I don’t know what the answer is , but I find it hard to accept that in the twenty-first century society we appear to be giving up on trying seriously to solve these traumatic social problems. Until we can address these repetitive humanitarian crisis it is hard to view society as anything other than callous and cruel and that view is equally difficult to accept.