Good intentions aren’t enough

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.

6 comments on “Good intentions aren’t enough”

  1. DCRamm says:

    It’s interesting that Charles Dickens (no doubt partially because of his own disposition) almost instantly recoiled from the Quakers’ approach when he saw Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842. He devoted almost all of the seventh chapter of his travel book American Notes for General Circulation to his prison visit, writing: “In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind humane and meant for reformation but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution do not know what they are doing. . . . The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body. . . . My firm conviction is that, independent of the mental anguish it occasions — an anguish so acute and tremendous, that all imagination of it must fall far short of the reality — it wears the mind into a morbid state, which renders it unfit for the rough contact and busy action of the world. It is my fixed opinion that those who have undergone this punishment, MUST pass into society again morally unhealthy and diseased.”

    The full text of American Notes is available via Google Books and Project Gutenberg. That chapter is particularly worth reading.

  2. As a Quaker, I think part of the reason I feel drawn to work on prison issues is because Quakers contributed to the origins of the problems. I recently read a good book, Gentle Action (, which talked a lot about unintended consequences, and how they relate to chaos and complexity.

    Your post, Howard, makes me wonder about the negative unintended consequences of restorative justice so far. What are your thoughts about that, Howard?

    One unintended consequence of RJ that I speculate about is this:
    During the period of RJ’s growth in the U.S. (in the last 30 years), the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially. While RJ advocates have been setting up “high touch” RJ programs that serve less than 1% of the cases in a jurisdiction, the responses to the remaining 99% of cases in that jurisdiction has generally become much more retributive. If those people who were setting up new, small RJ programs weren’t focused on those direct services, would they have had more energy and time to advocate for policies and systemic changes–and had more of an influence on setting up more restorative system overall?

    I don’t know the answer to this speculative question, but it seems worth considering, as the field of RJ moves forward.

  3. zehrh says:

    Hi Michael

    I appreciate your response and the question you raise is a good one. My impression has been that RJ has often brought people in who wouldn’t have engaged with criminal justice, or at least in advocacy. In my experience, RJ has provided a way to get some people involved (and to think critically) who might not otherwise have been open to it. But that doesn’t mean your point doesn’t have merit. Russ Immarigeon, in his chapter in Critical Issues in Restorative Justice, argues that RJ has partially lost its way by losing its concern about prison displacement.

    I have seen a variety of unintended consequences over the years. Some are fairly benign, but it’s possible some will not be in the long run. My hope is that if the field can continue to be grounded in clear values and principles, the unintended consequences may be less serious than has been the case for many previous “reforms.” But there is no guarantee, which is why we have to remain vigilant. And maybe we need to do more work on a restorative advocacy approach along with the service-provider approach.


  4. Emerson says:

    Very good article, very usefull!!

  5. Dr. Howard,
    I am glad that your sharing some information about Eastern State Penitentiary. Do you think it is possible to post more pictures here? Thanks in Advance!

  6. Felming says:

    Nice and interesting post.


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