The Silent Penitentiary

The silent system of Eastern State Penitentiary in the 19th century was conducive to rehabilitation.

Though the silent system was discontinued pretty much everywhere by early in the last century, the reports of recidivism rates we have from its use suggest a rate of less than 10%, as noted by Skotnicki (2000):

“Prior to the Civil War, the rates of reconviction were consistently less than 10%, with the data from the Eastern Penitentiary being the lowest.”

Skotnicki, A. (2000). Religion and the Development of the American Penal System. New York: University Press of America. (p. 145)

This article from Governing examines the system.

An excerpt.

Nearly 185 years ago, several Philadelphia men took up residence in an imposing stone structure in Cherry Hill, a pastoral setting just two miles from the city center. There, they would spend an average of two or three years alone, in complete meditative silence. With only a bed and a Bible, each was expected to devote every waking hour to self-contemplation and his relationship with God.

But this was no monastery and these were not monks. They were the first prisoners admitted to the Eastern State Penitentiary, which began construction in 1821 and opened eight years later. Architect John Haviland was instructed to “convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.” With its 80-foot bell tower, 30-foot walls and 27-foot-tall iron-studded oak doors, the building resembled a massive fortress. The only larger building in the country at the time was the U.S. Capitol.

As foreboding as it was, Eastern State was designed from the beginning to implement new, more humane theories about crime and punishment. Presaging many of today’s arguments on corrections reform, the emphasis was much less on punishment and more on rehabilitation. Philadelphians, drawing on their Quaker roots, had long argued for better treatment of prisoners. They believed that if prisoners were left alone in complete silence, with nothing to occupy their minds but thoughts of their misdeeds, they would become genuinely penitent. (Hence, the building was known as a “penitentiary.”)

The place was utterly silent. Guards walked the halls with socks over their shoes. The wheels on the wagons that brought food down the long corridors were covered in leather. For 23 hours of every day, inmates were confined to a 7.5- by-12-foot cell with a church-like vaulted ceiling and small skylight. For the remaining hour they were allowed outside within their own small exercise area. Inmates in adjoining cells were never allowed outside at the same time, and any communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden.

Retrieved April 13, 2014 from

Capital Punishment & Cell Phones in Prison

One of the points we made in our book “Capital Punishment & Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support”, in response to the capital punishment abolition movement in favor of life in prison, is that criminals, who are very resourceful, will still find a way to commit crimes; as this story from ABC News reports.

An excerpt.

A North Carolina prison inmate used a smuggled mobile phone to keep in touch with kidnappers holding the father of a prosecutor who helped send him away for life, federal authorities said.

Five people were arrested and Frank Arthur Janssen, a Wake Forest man whose daughter prosecutes violent crimes, was rescued late Wednesday following a raid by the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team on an Atlanta apartment.

During the abduction, the kidnappers took a picture of Janssen tied up in a chair and sent it to his wife, threatening to torture and dismember him if she went to police, the FBI said in court documents.

Janssen’s kidnapping was related to his daughter’s prosecution of Kelvin Melton, who is serving a life sentence for ordering the shooting of a man in 2011, said John Strong, the FBI’s agent in charge for North Carolina.

Authorities say Melton, 49, had a mobile phone in his cell at Polk Correctional Institution in Butner, exchanging at least 123 calls and text messages with the alleged kidnappers in the past week. Authorities closed in on the suspects by tracking their mobile phones and listening to their calls.

According to testimony from his 2012 trial, Melton is a high-ranking member of the Bloods street gang from New York City who ordered a 21-year-old subordinate to travel to Raleigh and kill his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Court records show Melton has a long record of felony convictions in New York, the first being a 1979 robbery committed when he was 14.

The admitted triggerman, Jamil Herring Gressett, testified that he followed Melton’s orders for fear he or his loved ones would be killed if he didn’t. The victim survived a gunshot wound.

Retrieved April 11, 2014 from

Jesus’s wife?

According to this story from the Boston Globe,the controversial ancient text is not a modern forgery.

An excerpt.

New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review.

The findings support the argument of Harvard professor Karen L. King that the controversial text, the first-known explicit reference to a married Jesus, is almost certainly an authentic document.

The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was introduced to the world by King at a conference in Rome 18 months ago. The announcement made headlines around the world, and many of King’s academic peers, as well as the Vatican newspaper, swiftly dismissed it as a fake.

King maintains the document was probably part of a debate among early Christians about the role of women, family, and celibacy in spiritual life.

The results of a carbon dating test found that the papyrus probably dates to eighth-
century Egypt, about 400 years later than King originally thought, but still in ancient times.

Retrieved April 10, 2014 from

College Education in Prison

As this article from the New York Times notes, providing college education to prisoners is incongruent with the struggle many college students have—who have committed no crime—paying for college.

It is a good argument, but still, Lampstand supports college education programs in prison, and a policy solution might be to tie-in the future jobs college educated prisoners get to public service for a defined period.

For instance, having college educated released prisoners working in programs helping reform other criminals, might be a start.

An excerpt from the New York Times article.

IN February, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced plans to underwrite college classes in 10 state prisons, building on the success of privately funded and widely praised programs like the Bard Prison Initiative. Mr. Cuomo pointed out that inmates who got an education had a much better chance of finding a job and were much less likely to menace their neighbors after release. He noted that the cost — $5,000 per inmate per year — would be a bargain compared with the $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year.

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was a baby step: $1 million in a corrections budget of $2.8 billion. It was also a bolt from the blue, announced as an applause line to a receptive audience of minority legislators without any advance work. And when the first, predictable bleats of resistance were heard, the governor dropped the college initiative from his budget.

The punch lines of the opposing politicians (mostly Republicans, but some Democrats) all struck the same theme: How dare the governor offer taxpayer money to educate convicted criminals when decent citizens skimp and borrow to send their kids to college? “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’ ” said George D. Maziarz, a state senator from western New York. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.” In other words, let criminals be criminals.

Retrieved April 10, 2014 from

Capital Punishment, How to End it

The strategy for doing so, and why it is wrong, is revealed in this article from the New York Times.

An excerpt.

Here’s the current constitutional strategy to ban capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment: Persuade the United States Supreme Court that society’s ”evolving standards of decency” have culminated in a national consensus opposing the death penalty. Point to a uniform direction of change: Six states have recently abolished capital punishment; none have newly adopted it. Opinion polls show a drop in public support, confirmed by a declining number of death sentences issued and carried out. Point out that European democracies that “share our values” have eliminated their death penalty. (Ignore the fact that European elites banned capital punishment in the teeth of overwhelming public support for it that continues to this day.) Meanwhile press state legislatures to appoint abolitionist “study commissions,” then follow their pre-ordained recommendations, until fewer than 25 states retain death as punishment. By that point, a fifth newly appointed justice will join the current abolitionist four, and a bare majority may rule that “decency” has truly “evolved” to the point where a genuine American “consensus” now exists that a punishment of death violates human dignity and thus also the Eighth Amendment.

That’s their dream, their plan, their scheme.

It might succeed, though based on false premises and misperception. When pollsters seek the appropriate punishment for the worst of the worst – a man who rapes and tortures a child, a serial killer, a depraved mass murderer such as Timothy McVeigh, etc. – overwhelmingly the people choose death as deserved. Many who prefer life without parole wrongly imagine that sadistic or callous killers experience prison as a daily punishment worse than death. My thousands of hours inside maximum-security prisons these past 30 years contradict this: Inside prison, prisoners and officers alike reject punishment.

Retrieved April 8, 2014 from

Two Popes

Having a resigned pope and a current pope, within St. Peter at the same time, is a new and wonderful situation for the Church, and this very nice reflection from Chiesa examines it.

An excerpt.

ROME, April 7, 2014 – The more the months go by, the more Benedict XVI’s resignation of the papacy manifests its exceptional novelty.

Other popes before him had resigned: the last was Gregory XII, in 1415. But Joseph Ratzinger was the first to want to be called “pope emeritus” and to continue to wear the white robe “within the precincts of Saint Peter,” bewildering the canonists and bringing fears of the installation of a diarchy of two popes at the summit of the Church:

Notice of Danger: A Church with Two Popes

Of course, Ratzinger no longer has the powers of pontiff of the universal Church: he stripped himself of them by exercising for the last time and in the highest degree precisely his powers as “vicarius Christi.” But neither did he return to being what he was before he was pope. After these two “embodiments” he now has a third that has no precedent in the history of the Church. It is the new “embodiment,” the new state of life that he sees as connected to the commitment “forever” taken on with the acceptance of his election as successor of Peter.

This is what he explained at his last general audience on February 27, 2013, the eve of his resignation of the papacy:

“Allow me to go back once again to 19 April 2005. The real gravity of the decision was also due to the fact that from that moment on I was engaged always and forever by the Lord. Always – anyone who accepts the Petrine ministry no longer has any privacy. He belongs always and completely to everyone, to the whole Church. In a manner of speaking, the private dimension of his life is completely eliminated. [. . .]

“The ‘always’ is also a ‘for ever’ – there can no longer be a return to the private sphere. My decision to resign the active exercise of the ministry does not revoke this. I do not return to private life, to a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences, and so on. I am not abandoning the cross, but remaining in a new way at the side of the crucified Lord. I no longer bear the power of office for the governance of the Church, but in the service of prayer I remain, so to speak, in the enclosure of Saint Peter. Saint Benedict, whose name I bear as Pope, will be a great example for me in this. He showed us the way for a life which, whether active or passive, is completely given over to the work of God.”

Retrieved April 7, 2014 from

Living Wage

Supporting the living wage being established as the minimum wage—based on the economics of each region rather than a hard number—is a sound strategy, which, not only helps recently released prisoners, but also can contribute to the economy by increasing the number of households that will be created because individuals would be able to pay prevailing rents, whereas those working on minimum wages as now established, cannot.

The vastly increased number of households would all be buying goods to furnish their new homes and the economy would benefit.

The Catholic position can be accessed in this two page statement from the USCCB, and from this 40 slide power point presentation at

Finally, Reentry Program with Rigorous Evaluation

This new program reported in the New York Times, has a promising program model, but most importantly, a rigorous evaluation model built in.

We hope to see good results in a couple of years.

An excerpt.

Nine years ago Molly Baldwin found herself in a curious position. Roca, the teenage pregnancy and violence prevention program she’d founded in her 20s, had a multimillion-dollar budget, a two-story building in downtown Chelsea, Mass., a portfolio of programs addressing everything from poverty to immigrant rights and a measure of fame for using Native American peacemaking circles to heal gang-impacted youth. The only problem was, those cathartic conversations weren’t translating to change.

“They would come to Roca and we were all into development, growth and self esteem, and they would feel good,” said Baldwin. “Then they’d go and shoot people and deal drugs.”…

Baldwin did the unthinkable. She brought all of Roca’s programming to a halt and began an agonizing pruning process. During the dormancy, she and her team asked themselves where the program could have the greatest impact. They decided to focus Roca’s energies on tackling mass incarceration by engaging and transforming young men between ages 17 and 24 who were at the “deep end” of the criminal justice system. These young people had already demonstrated a strong propensity toward violent crime and were either aging out of juvenile justice or beginning a revolving-door relationship with adult corrections departments….

Now comes the real test. In January Roca was selected to lead the seven-year, $27 million Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative, in partnership with five private foundations and Goldman Sachs’ Social Impact Fund.

This kind of Pay for Success program, also known as Social Impact Financing or Social Impact Bonds, brings together public and private funds to provide upfront money for prevention programs. The basic idea has been around since the late 1980s and in play in Britain since 2010, but first gained notice in the United States in 2012 when New York City and Goldman Sachs launched the nation’s first pay-for-success pilot to reduce recidivism among 16-to-18-year-olds on Rikers Island. Now such programs are exploding throughout Britain and the United States and in many other countries. The Massachusetts initiative is easily the largest, most ambitious and risky experiment in the United States to date.

The arrangement requires Roca to realize a 40 percent reduction in incarceration days compared to a control group among a cohort of up to 1,320 young men in Chelsea, Springfield and Boston over the next seven years. If Roca hits that target, investors will receive $22 million in success payments. If it does even better — if it reduces the days by 70 percent — investors could realize close to $27 million in payments and Massachusetts would save $45 million in taxpayer dollars. However, if the project fails, then the Goldman fund would lose its $9 million loan, as would each of the junior philanthropic lenders, including Roca, who put up 15 percent of its service fees in the deal — more than $4 million.

Retrieved April 2, 2014 from

Reporting Sexual Abuse, Italy’s Policy

The bizarre policy in Italy is backed by the Vatican, according to this article from The Independent in the United Kingdom:

An excerpt.

Italy’s bishops have adopted a policy, with backing from the Vatican, that states they are not obliged to inform police officers if they suspect a child has been molested.

The Italian Bishops’ Conference said the guidelines published on Friday reflected suggestions from the Vatican’s office that handles sex abuse investigations.

Victims have denounced how bishops systematically covered up abuse by moving priests while keeping prosecutors in the dark.

Only in 2010 did the Vatican instruct bishops to report abuse to police — but only where required by law.

Italian guidelines cite a 1985 treaty between the Vatican and Italy stipulating that clergy aren’t obliged to tell magistrates about information obtained through their religious ministry. The guidelines remind bishops, however, they have a ”moral duty“ to contribute to the common good.

Retrieved March 31, 2014 from

And, in response SNAP writes:

Can the Pope honestly wonder why his institution is allegedly “picked on” about child sex crimes and cover ups? It’s mind-numbing callousness like this that forces rational citizens to question the sincerity and integrity of Catholic officials across the globe.

With the stroke of a pen, Francis could order the world’s bishops to call police when they know of or suspect that boys or girls are being raped. Instead, Francis’ staff gives Italian bishops permission to ignore or conceal the rape of boys or girls.

Shame on every single Catholic Church employee in Italy who passively or silently accepts this cruel policy without fighting or denouncing it.

Retrieved March 31, 2014 from

Halfway Houses

The concept is good but the implementation has not been, as this editorial from the New York Times reports.

An excerpt.

In 2013, about 30,000 federal prison inmates were released to more than 200 halfway houses around the country. These facilities — where an inmate can serve up to the last year of his or her sentence — are meant to ease the transition back into society by way of employment and housing assistance, drug treatment, and other programs that make it less likely an inmate will end up reoffending and returning to prison.

Preventing recidivism should, of course, be a central goal of any correctional system. But too many halfway houses are understaffed, poorly supervised and generally ill prepared to do that job, and as a result the men and women who pass through them often leave them no better off.

In fact, one recent study out of Pennsylvania found that inmates sent to halfway houses were actually more likely to reoffend than those released directly into society, who were at least monitored by parole officers.

Retrieved March 29, 2014 from


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