Prisons in the United States are a profound kind of disaster, and lately I and some friends have been doing some thinking about how the conversation can be changed, away from the self-defeating logic of “tough on crime” to something that will actually, well, be tough on crime, rather than simply tough on the bodies and souls of criminals—and, by extension, a mark of shame on our whole society.
Hear, for instance, last week’s discussion hosted by Killing the Buddha, The Prison-Spirituality Complex. Also, in the current issue of Tricycle, I review a new book by one of the panelists at that event, Yale professor Caleb Smith. Since Tricycle is a Buddhist magazine, I took the opportunity, also, to interview and discuss Buddhists who are involved in prison work. (Unfortunately the review is available online only to subscribers. Buy it at your local Whole Foods!)
Solitude can be a vehicle for liberation, or it can tear a person apart; the American cult of reclusive individualism, after all, has given us wise men, intrepid pioneers, and mountaintop transcendentalists, but also desperate housewives and deranged unabombers. Caleb Smith, a professor of English at Yale, reveals in “The Prison and the American Imagination” that nowhere is this contraditction better and more brutally expressed than in our penal institutions.
Since the opening of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829, the corrections business in this country has carried on a love affair with isolation. Though well after passing from the control of its Quaker founders, the city ensured its flagship prison was suffused with their theology of the Inner Light. Inmates lived alone in cells lit by a single skylight—the “eye of God”—where they ate, slept, worked at handicrafts, and waited. The intention was that a man would drift into reveries of meditation, coming face to face with himself and the divine spark within. Prison, said one of Eastern State’s founding documents, will “teach him how to think.” Reformist hopes also took on the transformative language of born-again evangelism. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, imagined that upon an ex-con’s release people would proclaim, “This brother was lost, and is found—was dead and is alive.”
My instinct is that, with religion so centrally a part of the birth of the American prison disaster, religion will somehow have to be part of the solution.