On Prisons and Punishment

Written by Natalie Riddick ‘23, History major & Dance minor

On Monday, 19 October, the History Department hosted “History Matters: Punishment & Prisons, Dungeons & Dark Tourism.” This event in the History Matters series was about interpreting prison history and the history of punishment from the medieval period to the present. The panel assembled for this event included Sara Butler, Professor of History and King George III Chair in British History at The Ohio State University, and Samantha Hunter, Senior Specialist of School and Youth Programs at the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum.

Professor Butler presented on the misconceptions of punishment in the “barbarous” Middle Ages. This image, driven by Hollywood, is of an era of violence and repression in which the state harshly punished the slightest offenses. The rise in popularity of medieval torture museums also perpetuates this idea. Butler did not deny that the medieval world could be violent, but it was nowhere near as bad as we think it was. As for medieval imprisonment, prisons had much shorter sentences than we see today, because incarceration was not the final punishment for a crime but a sort of purgatory for those awaiting trial. Ironically, Medieval people thought it was a terrible punishment to leave a person in prison for an extended period. The most significant hardship for prisons in this era was the expense. Prisons were a private business and thus faced problems similar to those we have in the US prison system today. In both scenarios, since prisons are a business, it is not in their interest to let prisoners go, because the more prisoners they have, the more money they make. Medieval prisons charged prisoners with various fees during their sentences, and it was due to these fees that prisoners acquired so much debt that they could not leave. Torture in the Middle Ages was reserved for serious crimes and was not for the sake of punishment but for extracting a confession. Regulations extremely limited its use, and a judge and physician had to be present to keep the process honest. Prisons were also in the center of town, so everyone knew what was going on in the prisons and could hold them accountable if they saw misdeeds occurring. Overall, Professor Butler showed us that punishment may have harsh in this period, but the worst of the system was reserved for the worst kinds of people.

Educator Samantha Butler presented on the history of Eastern State Penitentiary and how it functions as a historical site today. Built in Philadelphia in 1829, Eastern State was once the most famous and innovative prison in the world and home to such high-profile inmates as Al Capone. This prison was built with the intention of being a humane alternative to other carceral spaces at the time. Before Eastern State, criminals were placed in overcrowded, one-room jail houses with little to no provisions. These spaces were not meant for long-term residents but to be a holding place for criminals before their public corporal punishment. Eastern State‘s founders believed in building a system that advocated for second chances and trusted the power of the individual. They proposed the idea of solitary confinement as a way to encourage prisoners to want to repent and seek forgiveness. Complete isolation was meant to provide prisoners with an opportunity to focus on themselves outside of potentially harmful influences and reflect on their misdeeds. Eastern State was the first prison to utilize solitary confinement, and from there, the practice expanded, and now it is a common feature in our prison system today, though for punishment rather than repentance.

The starting point for the site’s educators to tell the story of Eastern State was to recognize that it is a site of trauma. People process trauma in many ways, including acceptance, inquiry, laughter, and avoidance, and the educators wanted to make space for all of those responses in their programming. The educators at Eastern State have been trained in dialogue facilitation and see their educational programming as responsible for safely guiding visitors through these challenging conversations about incarceration. The museum also prioritizes making contemporary connections between the history of the prison and crises of the American prison system today. Along with this, the site also offers a top-ranked haunted house called “Terror Behind the Walls.” Hunter acknowledged the challenge for educators at Eastern State to tell these two different narratives effectively. She stated that they are continuously working to balance entertainment and education in their programming at the site.