The Religious Roots of the Prison

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We don’t talk enough about prisons in this country. And we never talk about the religious roots of the prison. Here’s what Caleb Smith, author of The Prison and the American Imagination had to say in an interview with Religion Dispatches:

The reformers who built the model institutions of the early nineteenth century called them penitentiaries, to compel penitence. They drew from Christian traditions–Quaker tenets of nonviolence, Catholic and Calvinist varieties of asceticism and moral rigor–and they often represented the cell as a place of spiritual rebirth. As a precondition for that resurrection, they led convicts through mortifying processes including “civil death,” a loss of legal personhood with origins in European monasticism. The Philadelphia reformer Benjamin Rush quoted scripture in describing the rehabilitated convict as a man who “was lost and is found–was dead and is alive.”

Some states are reconsidering the cost (financial, not social or emotional) of leaning too heavily on prisons to deal with criminal behavior. We should pause to remember a time when rehabilitation, however misguided a manifestation the penitentiary was at the time, was at the center of the idea of the prison. Today the rhetoric of rehabilitation is all but gone from the tough-on-crime diatribes that have become the guiding light for criminal justice policy in the United States. There’s a “civil death” I’d like to see.

Source: Religion Dispatches

Image by Sean Munson, licensed under Creative Commons.

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