Isolation and Association: The Penitentiary System’s Democratic Lessons

7 March 2019

This is the second article in Tocqueville 21’s series on prisons, police, and democracy.


When Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave Beaumont arrived in America in 1831, they did so on a pretext. They were interested in leaving Louis Philippe’s France to observe Jackson’s America, but needed a reason for their travels—as Tocqueville wrote to Charles Stoffels in 1830—both to authorize their absences and receive the “benevolence” they hoped for upon their return. They found it in America’s prisons. We know that their attention turned to larger questions once they arrived, but they never left the study of prisons behind. Tocqueville and Beaumont published their official report On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France in 1833 and remained expert voices in penitentiary debates through the July Monarchy.


Given the topic and timing of The Penitentiary System, it is tempting to read it as a companion piece to Democracy in America, narrower in focus but still compiled as Tocqueville observed American society. But the recurring images of The Penitentiary System are in striking contrast to those of American democracy that Tocqueville would relay to his French audience in 1835. He and Beaumont emphasized the distinct social space of the penitentiary: “diseased” and “disordered,” occupied by men who “see without knowing one another.” They presented prison reform as a problem of pressing necessity requiring unique administrative solutions. Viewing America’s prisons through the eyes of Tocqueville and Beaumont, we see a system where despotism is posed as the rightful model of governance, and where discipline, not freedom, is the end of institutions.


Prisons, then, seemed to show the authors some of the darkest possibilities of a democratic future, even the first model of the new despotism Tocqueville describes in the second volume of Democracy in America. Yet the study of prison life also allowed them to find the greatest instances of democratic success. Though despotism colors the entire text, The Penitentiary System nonetheless retains a role for democratic freedom. In local administration and associations, they discovered a comprehensive, communal solution to the illness of criminality that the prison was designed to contain.


When Tocqueville and Beaumont justified their travels in terms of prisons, they made a strategic political choice. The French government acknowledged the urgent need for prison reform after the Restoration. Tocqueville and Beaumont undertook a preliminary investigation of French prisons at Versailles and Poissy in 1830, and found the establishments more like grand banquets than houses of discipline. At the same time, “the penitentiary question” became a fashionable topic among social theorists and public commentators. Would-be reformers looked internationally for solutions, turning to Switzerland, England, and eventually the United States. The Academy of Moral and Political Science awarded the 1828 Montyon Prize to J.-M. Charles Lucas’ comparative study of European and American prisons. Yet Lucas had never actually been to America, and Tocqueville saw an opportunity to bolster his own reputation by correcting Lucas’s mistakes while contributing a report on the subject.


When it came time to write his portion, however, as George W. Pierson writes, he “fell into a kind of stupor…. He could neither work nor write. [He] sat for weeks in front of some white sheets of paper.” Whether paralyzed by the task or preoccupied by other thoughts about America, Tocqueville contributed very few words to the published draft.


The words of the report were mostly Beaumont’s, but it is reasonable to assume that the ideas were shared. The two had the same experiences in the United States, and approached their prison research as far more than a pretext. They visited prisons in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maryland, along with institutions for juvenile offenders. They interviewed prisoners and prison officials. They collected statistics on administration, recidivism, even prisoners’ diets, illnesses, daily schedules, and hygiene practices. All the while, they kept the purpose of their journey in mind: to discover a system that balanced the need for moral reform while limiting the costs of administration. American federalism offered an array of examples of prison governance, giving sight of both best and worst. “By the side of one state,” the authors noted, “the penitentiaries of which might serve as a model, we find another, whose jails present the example of everything which ought to be avoided.”


The most successful models combined the “two united principles” of prison life: solitude and labor. Solitude allowed the prisoner to reflect on his crimes, promoting remorse. It had the even greater benefit of reducing communication among prisoners and thus checking corruption. Tocqueville and Beaumont described criminality in terms of moral contagion, spread through prisons by language and even mere proximity. The goal of penal administration, they urged, was to avoid the reciprocal “fatal influence” of prisoners upon one another.


Such isolation had to be tempered by moments of relief, which could be found in labor. In interviews, prisoners associated work with “gratitude,” “comfort,” and “benefit.” It provided a break from one’s thoughts, and replaced idleness with occupation. The best of American prisons, the ones from which France could gain, combined solitude with labor through the cell system. Only the cell system could truly limit the reach of criminality, allowing space for the moral reformation of the individual. Even if reformation was too lofty a goal, as the authors conceded, this system at least did not contribute to corruption.


Tocqueville continued to advocate for the cell system in France upon his return. By 1844, he had become so convinced of the need for the isolation that he rephrased the entire penitentiary question in terms of it. Drawing on a decade of experience and observations across two nations, he declared that “there is only one system…separating convicts from one another.” The question was simply how this should be done. France could learn from Pennsylvania, where the cell system helped to reduce the prison population by one fifth while avoiding the need for physical punishment, which he believed the French would never tolerate.


The cell system discourages association, replacing any possible society with a world of proximate bodies but separate souls. The authors justified this system by emphasizing the distinctive nature of their subject: the penitentiary system operates on only a small part of the social body, fundamentally diseased and uniquely worrisome, for criminality is difficult to treat or to contain. In fact, they cautioned against trying to understand an entire society through the inner life of its prisons: “institutions, the habits, the political circumstances – these influence most the moral state of men in society. Prisons act but on the morality of prisoners.”


Such a social space, bounded by vice and disorder, requires particular remedies for very real necessities. What Tocqueville most feared for democratic societies—a despotism extending over the whole community, both public and private life—was in fact the only true solution for reforming prisoners into men and finally into citizens. Prison despotism, like political despotism, operates on mind and souls, and thrives on atomism and isolation. Unlike its political counterpart, the despotism of the prison is salutary; it is the only style of administration fit for a system whose explicit end is obedience. The despotic cell system establishes a common equality, and with it, a common routine for prisoners, even redefining the day in terms of isolation and work over light and darkness. The path from criminal to citizen, from appetitive to free man, requires the technical, omnipresent kind of governance only despotism could supply.


Though the prison is a particular institution, Tocqueville and Beaumont recognized its implications for society. That is precisely why reform was so urgent. If criminality could forever be contained within a single system, never touching society beyond its walls, it would not require such attention. But the penitentiary is most often a temporary despotism, whose subjects will one day leave it. Any system that discourages corruption only invites more crime in society, allowing the imaginations of prisoners to dream up new schemes. For Tocqueville and Beaumont, the salutary harshness of the penitentiary system could help to protect the extended liberty of society by confining the problem of criminality and, at best, eliminating vice from the minds of those it touches.


The prison, however, could only do so much. Though the authors devoted much of their work to the internal, daily life of the penitentiary, they ultimately looked outside of it. Just as the New England township later inspired Tocqueville on democratic governance, it also informed his inquiry into prison reform. New England’s prisons were locally constructed and administered by a voluntary prison association, whose members were “eagerly interested” not only in a well-governed institution but in the lives of prisoners, from incarceration to reintegration. In short, the community took responsibility for both prison and post-prison life. While incarcerated, prisoners were instructed in a trade by local businessmen, and once released, had the opportunity to be employed in the community.


Tocqueville and Beaumont acknowledged the difficulty of this undertaking, but held fast to its lesson: interest the minds of the people in penal reform as an issue for communities, not simply governments. The French had a taste for politics, but politics so narrowly construed as to obscure the very issues upon which the people could exert tangible influence. In the Chamber of Deputies, Tocqueville urged that the dividing line between prison and society, administration and community should cease to be so defined. If prisons could be rightly administered, they could allow a bit of the outside world into their walls. Philanthropic spirit and religious morality, introduced by local charitable associations, might replace corrupt morals, and those same associations could help to reintegrate ex-convicts into society. When Tocqueville called for a despotic penitentiary, he ultimately suggested that it was to let the outside world back in. The design of the system, restated by Tocqueville in an 1844 speech, was that “inmates will only be separated from one another, men will not be separated from society.”


If The Penitentiary System shows us the most complete despotism, it also reveals the promise of democratic association. What began for the authors as an analysis of prison life and criminal law became a lesson in public action. The best parts of the “system” were not exactly of the system at all, but of democratic society itself. The conclusions which Tocqueville and Beaumont gave to France were varied, but the authors continued to call for a revised understanding of “politics” and the reach of citizen action, a call that ought to remain with us. Even and perhaps especially under democracies, citizens are often too willing to yield to a legal system designed to protect individual rights but which often exercises power at the expense of protection. Tocqueville and Beaumont remind us of the democratic ability to influence questions of reform and criminal justice, beginning with our own communities.


Photo Credit: Unknown, Sing Sing prison, near New York, in 1855, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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