Studying the History of Prisons to Understand Mass Incarceration Today

Written by Lindsay McConnell ’21, History (Public & Applied History) & English double-major

On Monday, October 19, the History Department hosted “Punishment & Prisons, Dungeons & Dark History.” Professor Perron moderated the event that featured two panelists with different professional backgrounds and knowledge to bring to the conversation. The first panelist was Sara Butler, a professor of history at Ohio State University with expertise in medieval history, women’s, gender, and sexuality history, and religion in history. The second panelist was Samantha Hunter, the Senior Specialist of School and Youth Programs at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each panelist gave a brief presentation that was followed by a lively Q&A session.

In her presentation, Professor Butler discussed common misconceptions about violence and punishment in medieval Europe. The idea of the “barbarous” Middle Ages is driven largely by Hollywood and has little truth to it. In reality, medieval executions were rare and when they did take place, it was typically for people guilty of treason. Another common misconception is the frequent use of torture. Professor Butler pointed out that torture was rarely used and when it was, it was not used as a punishment. Instead, torture was a means of obtaining a confession. There were also extreme regulations on torture. For example, an eyewitness had to be present; torture could not cause any permanent injury; and many people were exempt from being tortured. In addition to that, a confession was not considered valid unless a person stood by it the next day. While instances of torture, executions, and other violence did take place, it was often not for the reasons depicted in movies and television shows.

Medieval prisoners typically had short sentences, and most prisoners were still awaiting trial. Religion played a large role in how imprisonment functioned. The time an individual spent in prison before their trial was supposed to mirror purgatory, giving them time to repent. Prisons were in private hands and run as businesses, meaning there were many fees. While making this point, Professor Butler, made the connection to the private prisons in the United States today. At every step of their imprisonment, the individual had to pay a fee. This meant accommodations varied dramatically based on what an individual could afford. The wealthy prisoners had a parlor, while peasant prisoners did not have beds. Individuals even had to pay a fee to leave, which proved to be a big problem. Many prisoners went into debt, meaning they could not afford to get out. Unlike today’s prisons, medieval prisons were all located centrally so that people could go in and out daily. This kept prisoners and jailers accountable, unlike today where prisons are away from major cities and outside of the public consciousness.

Samantha Hunter gave her presentation on the history of Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site and its connections to the modern prison system. It was founded and 1829 by the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons on the ideals of remorse and rehabilitation. Before Eastern State opened, most prisons were one room and provided little to no provisions. The founders pondered what an individual needed to make a successful change in their life and built the prison around this. Out of this, they instituted the practice of solitary confinement, the first prison to do so. This was and is still a controversial practice. One positive from solitary confinement was diseases were less likely to spread. Solitary confinement was meant to provide an individual the opportunity to focus on themselves and reflect on their actions, but it had many negative side effects. Hunter went on to describe the closing of Eastern State in 1971.

The second part of her talk included a description of programming at the historic site and the role she plays in creating it. Eastern State offers tours and makes an effort to build community while doing so. Hunter acknowledged that the site is filled with trauma, so there is a balance to safely guiding visitors through hard conversations. The historic site also makes an effort to connect their past to the criminal justice system of today. She discussed how they look at the racial disparity of sentencing and general treatment in the criminal justice system. They also connect with the community by hosting an annual haunted house.

Both of the panelists used their perspectives to offer unique insight into both the past and present. This conversation exemplifies one of the goals of the history department: using the past to learn about the present.