California's San Quentin, from a 1999 photograph
The Summer 2010 issue of Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is devoted to "the challenge of mass incarceration in America." The editors describe the prison system as "a leviathan unmatched in human history." Scholars in law, policy, and the social sciences approach this monster from their several ideological and disciplinary points of view.
Of special interest, just now, is the essay by Jonathan Simon, a UC Berkeley law professor and the author of books including "Poor Discipline" and "Governing through Crime." An expert on criminal law, Simon is also attentive to the power of language, especially the metaphors that often shape public discussions of penal policy. In "Clearing the 'Troubled Assets' of America's Punishment Bubble," Simon argues that Americans ought to abandon the dangerous metaphor of the "war on crime." He suggests that it is time to stop talking about the prison system in terms of warfare, and start talking in terms of economic crisis.
Taking his examples from California, home of the largest state prison system in the U.S., Simon writes:
"California built twenty-one new prisons between 1984 and 2000. Despite this growth, the prisons have been overcrowded and managed on a nearly state-of-emergency basis for most of that period, punctuated with increasingly huge and expensive federal court orders. These prisons, disastrously designed to accommodate growth in high-security bed capacity and located far from the state's major cities, have proved impossible to operate efficiently. They have become a catastrophic financial liability akin to the 'legacy' litigation burden of tobacco manufacturers or the unfunded pensions of the former Big Three automakers."
Julia Wilt, alias Julia Moore, was one of the hundreds of women confined at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary in the nineteenth century. The population of female inmates was consistently smaller than that of male offenders, and the experiences of these women can be difficult to excavate. An 1844 pamphlet entitled “An Account of Julia Moore, A Penitent Female, Who Died in the Eastern Penitentiary of Philadelphia, in 1843,” published by the Female Prison Association of Friends, tells part of the story. At the same time, because one of its many purposes was to extol the virtues of the Pennsylvania system of prison discipline, the document raises new questions.
Julia found herself an inmate in 1839 after participating, with two male accomplices, in a robbery and assault. The victim lost an arm to amputation. The court sentenced Julia to seven years at Eastern State. When she arrived at the penitentiary, the descriptive registers recorded that Julia was a servant by trade, drank occasionally, and had left her husband. While the registers provide only cursory details, they imply that she may not have led a comfortable life. The pamphlet elaborates on this, suggesting that Julia, at a young age, began to participate in immoral behavior; and while she tried to reform her actions, she failed to do so. Julia is a case in point for nineteenth century fears that having an immoral vice or committing a small crime would lead to more heinous criminal behavior.
Documenting Julia’s experience at Eastern State, the pamphlet represents her as a model prisoner: penitent, quiet, thoughtful, and truly thankful for her incarceration. This portrayal of prison life is exactly what early reformers wanted the public to hear about their penitentiary. Julia’s illness, which would take her life in 1843, sometimes made it necessary to have another inmate in the cell to care for her, but the pamphlet claims that she preferred to remain in solitude. By describing an inmate who desired to be alone, to meditate and reflect on her crimes, the pamphlet argued against critics who believed that Eastern State’s cruel system of solitary confinement actually produced insanity.
Was Julia truly penitent of her criminal past? Was she actually a model prisoner who benefited from the isolation of Eastern State, or was she chosen by the author because she was someone for whom the public might feel sorry? Are readers receiving a truthful account of her incarceration? The pamphlet is a crucial source for understanding the life of Julia Moore or Julia Wilt, but her case illustrates the difficulties in uncovering the experiences of inmates, especially when the authors of the available sources had a system to defend. The pamphlet’s emphasis on reformation and the virtues of the penitentiary system may shadow Julia’s true experience in the penitentiary.
Erica R. Hayden is a PhD student in History at Vanderbilt University.