Wednesday, December 27, 2006

ClinkShrink's Travelogue

Now that Dinah's gone for a week I will take this opportunity to blog about all things corrections-related until she posts a comment begging me to stop. Oh wait, I do that anyway.

Here goes.

When I go on vacation one of the things I really enjoy is to visit historic old prisons. (Yes I know that sounds odd, but think about this---Eastern State Prison had 50,000 visitors in one year after it was turned into a museum.) There are six correctional facilities that have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. I've been to a couple and I thought I'd write about some of the others.

Newgate Prison

Located at the site of an old copper mine, Newgate Prison (originally called Simsbury Prison) was the first penitentiary in America. During the American Revolution it was used to house Tory sympathizers---the Guantanamo Bay of its time. Inmates were kept 70 feet underground, in the various nooks and crannies of the mine shaft. In spite of the fact that all the exits were sealed there were a surprising number of escapes from the prison, and it was the site of the first mass escape in American history. Fans of the show Prison Break might enjoy reading about the ingenuity of the plans laid by these early prisoners on the American Heritage web site.

George Washington used Newgate to get rid of his troublemakers, as documented in the text of one of his letters:

Gentn.: The prisoners which will be delivered you with this, having been tried by a Court Martial, and deemed to be such flagrant and attrocious villains that they cannot by any means be set at large or confined in any place near this Camp, were sentenced to be sent to Symsbury in Connecticut; you will therefore be pleased to have them secured in your Jail … so that they cannot possibly make their escape … I am, &c
George Washington
You can visit and take tours there from May to October.

Walnut Street Jail

The Walnut Street Jail doesn't exist anymore, but its former location is marked by a plaque at the corner of Walnut and Sixth Street in Philadelphia. It was the first American jail. It was unusual because it was the first correctional facility to classify inmates according to offenses, and to house them accordingly. During Colonial times the Quakers used the jail to model a theory of rehabilitation known as the Pennsylvania System. Under this system offenders were kept in continuous solitary confinement with little chance to interact with one another. The theory was that this would automatically lead to introspection, penitence and reformation. Thus, the idea of the penitentiary was born. As harsh as this sounds, it was actually humane for its time since the Quakers---chief among them Benjamin Rush and Ben Franklin---called for the use of this method of reformation rather than the use of capital punishment for anything other than murder.

During the Revolution the jail was used by the British to house American prisoners of war in occupied Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Prison Society has a nice history of the jail with more detail.

One other piece of historical trivia---the jail was the site of the first air flight in the United States. On January 19, 1793, a fellow by the name of Jean-Pierre Blanchard took off from the jail yard in a hydrogen balloon and later landed in New Jersey. George Washington witnessed the takeoff.

Hale Paahao Prison

This is one of the prisons I've visited, and let me tell you it doesn't look like a place I'd mind being in if I had to be locked up! Located on the island of Maui, it was designated the Hawaii State Prison in 1852. As the whaling industry increased the rate of crime increased as well. The museum has posted a list of the crimes that inmates were convicted of, like "furious riding" (the nineteenth century equivalent of drunk driving) and "bastardy" (I'm not going to guess at that one!).

Although the cells were small and barren, the prison yard itself is fairly luxurious. It was hardly a punitive environment. The museum displays an excerpt from the diary of one prisoner, a sixteen year old sailor:
"No restrictions are placed on the use of cards or tobacco...and any sedate individual could therefore lay back all day with a pipe in his mouth and enjoy himself at a game of euchre as well as though he was comfortably stowed away in a beer house."
The prison was eventually closed when the death of the whaling industry essentially eliminated most of the local criminal activity.

Last but not least, this curious piece of correctional trivia:

In 1924 the Governor of Pennsylvania sent his dog, Pep, to the Eastern State Penitentiary for allegedly killing his wife's cat. The "cat-murdering dog" was even given an inmate number: C2559. No word yet on any book or movie deals.