Like Being “Buried Alive”: Charles Dickens on Solitary Confinement in America’s Prisons

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General view of former American prison, Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), a U.S. National Historic Landmark which is open to the public as a museum in Philadelphia.. 

More than 170 years before Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denounced the “human toll” of solitary confinement practices in U.S. prisons in his concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala this June (see “Eight Principles for Reforming Solitary Confinement” in the Fall 2015 issue of the Prospect), Charles Dickens had reached the same conclusion. The system of “rigid, strict, solitary confinement” is cruel and wrong,” he wrote in American Notes, his 1842 report on his travels in America that year.

When Dickens visited the United States, he was already a giant celebrity and media mogul, the most widely read writer in English on both sides of the Atlantic, the creator of a new form of publishing (cheap, serialized novels affordable by working people) and a new mass audience of newly schooled, newly literate working class readers. He was eager to visit the bustling democracy that he imagined was free of the vices of England’s class system and cultural snobbery.

But Dickens was famously disillusioned by what he found: bad manners (incessant tobacco spitting, rudeness, disregard for personal privacy, woefully messy eating habits); an intrusive and wildly dishonest press (“Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! … Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! ... Here’s the Sewer’s exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer’s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at great expense, by his own nurse,” as he was later to immortalize it in Martin Chuzzlewit, his 1843 novel about America); a public opinion, even in the North, largely indifferent to the horror of slavery; and, not least, publishers pirating his copyrighted works. “This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination,” he dejectedly wrote a friend.

Nonetheless, feted, followed and mobbed wherever he went, Dickens went on to make the standard stops for a literary tourist of note in those times: factory towns, schools, hospitals, asylums—and prisons, including the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where Dickens’ reforming zeal was triggered.

Opened in 1829, Eastern was designed to implement the 19th-century American “Silent System”—day-in, day-out solitary confinement in cells 12 feet long by seven feet wide, lit by a small skylight 16 feet above the inmates’ heads. Upon arrival, a prisoner was stripped, hooded, lectured by the warden and led to his cell, not to emerge again until his sentence was over. “He sees the prison-officers, but with that exception, he never looks upon a human countenance or hears a human voice,” Dickens later wrote in American Notes. “He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the mean time dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”

“As I walked among these solitary cells, and looked at the faces of the men within them, I tried to picture to myself the thoughts and feelings natural to their condition,” Dickens reported. “I imagined the hood just taken off, and the scene of their captivity disclosed to them in all its dismal monotony. … Every now and then there comes upon him a burning sense of the years that must be wasted in that stone coffin, and an agony so piercing in the recollection of those who are hidden from his view and knowledge, that he starts from his seat, and striding up and down the narrow room with both hands clasped on his uplifted head, hears spirits tempting him to beat his brains out on the wall.”

Dickens, his novelist’s sympathetic imagination at work, projected himself into the despairing mind of an Eastern prisoner, as he would later enter the souls of his great criminal characters, the murderers Anthony Chuzzlewit, Bradley Headstone, and John Jasper, and their guilty dreams and hallucinations.

The weary days pass on with solemn pace, like mourners at a funeral; and slowly he begins to feel that the whitewalls of the cell have something dreadful in them: that their colour is horrible: that their smooth surface chills his blood: that there is one hateful corner which torments him. Every morning when he wakes, he hides his head beneath the coverlet, and shudders to see the ghastly ceiling looking down upon him. The blessed light of day itself peeps in, an ugly phantom face, through the unchangeable crevice which is his prison window. By slow but sure degrees, the terrors of that hateful corner swell until they beset him at all times; invade his rest, make his dreams hideous, and his nights dreadful. At first, he took a strange dislike to it; feeling as though it gave birth in his brain to something of corresponding shape, which ought not to be there, and racked his head with pains. Then he began to fear it, then to dream of it, and of men whispering its name and pointing to it. Then he could not bear to look at it, nor yet to turn his back upon it. Now, it is every night the lurking-place of a ghost: a shadow:—a silent something, horrible to see, but whether bird, or beast, or muffled human shape, he cannot tell. … A hideous figure, watching him till daybreak. … If his period of confinement have been very long, the prospect of release bewilders and confuses him. His broken heart may flutter for a moment, when he thinks of the world outside, and what it might have been to him in all those lonely years, but that is all. The cell-door has been closed too long on all its hopes and cares.

Dickens tried to interview a sailor who had been imprisoned for 11 years and was about to be released. “‘I am very glad to hear your time is nearly out.’ What does he say? Nothing. Why does he stare at his hands, and pick the flesh upon his fingers, and raise his eyes for an instant … to those bare walls which have seen his head turn grey? ... Does he never look men in the face, and does he always pluck at those hands of his, as though he were bent on parting skin and bone?”

His conclusion:

A helpless, crushed and broken man. … Better to have hanged him in the beginning than bring him to this pass, and send him forth to mingle with his kind, who are his kind no more. On the haggard face of every man among these prisoners, the same expression sat. I know not what to liken it to.  It had something of that strained attention which we see upon the faces of the blind and deaf, mingled with a kind of horror, as though they had all been secretly terrified. In every little chamber that I entered, and at every grate through which I looked, I seemed to see the same appalling countenance. It lives in my memory, with the fascination of a remarkable picture. Parade before my eyes, a hundred men, with one among them newly released from this solitary suffering, and I would point him out.

Dickens urged his American readers to abolish the Silent System: “Nothing wholesome or good has ever had its growth in such unnatural solitude, [and] even a dog … would pine and mope and rust away beneath its influence.” But his common sense and common decency have not prevailed. Eastern ended its solitary confinement practices in 1913 and was closed in 1970. But the soul-destroying methods of isolation and deprivation it pioneered have become mainstream once again in America’s prisons. It’s finally time to abolish them. 

Related: Eight Principles for Reforming Solitary Confinement, by Margo Schlanger & Amy Fettig

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