Inventing Solitary ConfinementHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Philadelphia, prisons, Mass Incarceration
AS A HEAVY STEEL DOOR SLAMMED shut behind him, Caine Pelzer stepped into his new home with a jangle of handcuffs and shackles, wrists chained to waist, waist to ankles. It was April 2021, and Pelzer was among the first arrivals at the Intensive Management Unit at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Montgomery County.
Pelzer, 43, had grown up in New York City, one of eight children — cutting school, fighting, and spending time in homeless shelters before becoming a star athlete at a residential school for students at risk of dropping out. He moved to Wilkes-Barre to play quarterback for a semiprofessional football team. Then, in 2002, he was convicted of a series of home-invasion robberies and sentenced to 22 to 44 years in prison. He soon found a new calling as a jailhouse lawyer.
Like some of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ most prolific litigants and troublemakers before him, he was placed in long-term isolation. He said he was told he held “too much influence” in the prison.
By the time he arrived at the newly created IMU, Pelzer had spent 13 years in 10-by-8-foot solitary confinement cells.
Stand back far enough to take in the sweep of history, though, and the IMU can be viewed as just one more iteration of a centuries-old tradition. It traces its lineage back 232 years and 35 miles to Philadelphia — a city that’s touted as the cradle of liberty.
That origin story starts at the Walnut Street prison, an often overlooked Philadelphia first, situated just a block south of Independence Hall. It became the first state penitentiary in 1790, with the first dedicated solitary cells. And it became a prototype for the nation: an incubator of American innovations in solitary confinement, incarceration-as-punishment, and even early attempts at criminal justice reform.
The story that begins in that prison at Sixth and Walnut is a history of social control in America — one contaminated by racism at the outset.
It was pitched as a humane, Quaker alternative to public humiliations and corporal punishment. Yet, some historians view the pioneering prison as a direct reaction to the 1780 Abolition Act, which gradually ended slavery in Pennsylvania.
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