Travels Through North America, during the years 1825 and 1826
By His Highness,
Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach
Efforts have been made to abolish capital punishment in Pennsylvania, and to substitute solitary confinement, which hitherto has only been occasionally resorted to in the prisons, for offenses committed there; it is even intended to inflict this punishment for life. It is also wished to separate prisoners condemned to hard labour, to give them their tasks in separate cells. For this purpose, a large square yard has been walled in, each side of which is six hundred and fifty feet long. This yard has but one entrance, over which is erected a Gothic building, to accommodate the officers, offices, watchrooms, and hospital wards. The portal has very much the appearance and strength of the gate of a fortification. In the middle of this yard is a round tower, which is intended for the watchmen, and from this central point, six wings run in an eccentric direction, containing the cells. Each wing consists of a vaulted corridor, which runs from one end of the wing to the other; on both sides of each of the six corridors are nineteen cells, whose entrance is from the outside. There is an opening in every cell, leading into the vaulted corridor, merely large enough to admit provisions; this aperture has a small iron door attached to it, only to be opened from the corridor. To every cell there is a yard, sixteen feet long and seven feet broad, surrounded by a wall twenty feet high: in this yard leading to the cell, the prisoner has the liberty of walking, provided the prisoners in the next cells are locked up. The cell itself is eight feet long and five feet broad, its entrance is low and small, and secured by a door and grate. The floor of the cell is of boards, the roof an arch which inclines outwardly, that the rain may run from it: a patent glass gives light to the prisoner. There are small apertures in the walls, in order to admit a current of air, and others to admit heated air during winter. Every cell has a water-closet, which is connected with the principal pipe, under the corridor, throughout all the length of the wings. They are not yet quite decided in what manner the prisoner is to sleep, whether in a bedstead or on a hammock.
I do not now wish to enter upon the question whether it is advisable to abolish capital punishment altogether or not, but I maintain that this solitary confinement, in which the prisoner is prohibited from all human converse, without work, exercise, and almost without fresh air, is even worse than punishment by death. From want of exercise they will certainly become sickly; from the want of work they will become unaccustomed to labor, and perhaps lose what skill they may have possessed heretofore in their trades, so that when restored to the world, they will be useless for any kind of business, and merely drag out a miserable existence. No book is allowed them but the bible. It appears therefore to me perfectly possible, that this insulation of the prisoner will be injurious to his mind, and drive him to fanaticism, enthusiasm, and even derangement. When Mr. Vaux asked my opinion of this prison, I could not refrain from answering him that it reminded me of the Spanish inquisition, as described by Llorente. Mr. Vaux answered that it is only an experiment to ascertain whether capital punishment can be abolished; but notwithstanding this philanthropic view, the experiment appears to me to be an expensive one, because the building has already cost three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and the state of Pennsylvania will have to expend annually for its support, an immense sum. The first great object of a government ought to be to provide for the welfare of its good citizens, and not to oppress them with taxes; on the contrary, to relieve them as much as possible, as it is hard for the good citizens to have to maintain vagabonds, for the sake of deterring others by example, or to render convicts harmless. In this view it should be the object of the government to arrange the prisons so that convicts can maintain themselves. When once this is realized, then it is likewise easier to improve their moral principles. Continued employment would answer both purposes. If it be possible that the prisoner can earn a little surplus money, in order that when he returns to society he may be in possession of a small sum for his pressing necessities, I believe it would be much better than any philanthropic experiment.