Recently my daughter Nicole and I walked through the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, now a museum. I had been there before for an opening – in fact, my exhibit of lifers has been shown there – but had never been through this historic prison. I have posted a few photos of the prison on my photo website.
Eastern State Penitentiary was the beginning of the modern prison or penitentiary. It was built in the early 1800s with great hopes and much fanfare – an alternative to the prevailing practices of corporal and capital punishment. (See here for a brief history.) People came from all over the world to see and copy this wonderful phenomenon. De Tocqueville, the great commentator on the new American democracy, actually came primarily to observe this prison.
In spite of their good intentions, the Quakers and others who invented the prison had created a monster. Indeed, pressures for reform began almost immediately. Important lessons are to be found here. Reforms and innovations often have unintended consequences. Even with the best intentions, social change efforts can and will go astray.
But there is another, perhaps more fundamental, lesson from the birth of prisons: what seems good for me may not be good for others. Research into the social circumstances of early prison advocates has revealed that some of the Quaker promoters of penitentiaries had themselves been imprisoned for conscience’s sake. Because they were men of substance, they were not treated as badly as they would have been otherwise. Because they were men of reflection, they found their incarceration to be a time for contemplation. Consequently, they advocated prison as a place to reflect on the Bible and become penitent. Unfortunately, what was liberating for them soon became oppressive to others.
This is an important warning for those of us who advocate for restorative justice and, indeed, any social change. Our visions themselves may reflect class, gender and cultural biases – and they may be fundamentally flawed. To guard against this, we need to be self-critical, to open ourselves to evaluation and feedback; we need to create space to hear from divergent and diverse voices.
In short, we must practice the accountability we espouse for others.