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All Vipassana and No Chit-Chat

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When Charles Dickens traveled to the US in 1842, he wanted to take out time to see two major tourist attractions: Niagara Falls in upstate NY & Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) at Philadelphia. When Nidhi & I visited Philly last weekend, we also wanted to take out time to see ESP, amongst other places. As we entered the castle-like facade of the former prison, we were handed entry passes for $12 each; they were designed to look exactly as the passes given to curious visitors like Dickens in the nineteenth century except that admittance was free of cost back then.

When ESP was opened in 1829 and admitted Charles Williams (its first inmate, an 18-year old), it represented a big leap of thought in terms of how society viewed justice and punishment. ESP was inspired by the liberal Quaker mindset prevalent in Pennsylvania that wanted to provide criminals an opportunity to self-reform by introspection. It was the culmination of efforts of ‘Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons’, the first prison reform group in the world established by Dr Benjamin Rush in 1787. Before ESP, prisons were a cesspool where inmates constantly sparred with each other and facilities were non-existent. ESP was established to ensure complete solitude for each inmate thus enforcing penitence (hence the replacement of ‘prison’ with ‘penitentiary’). Within his small cell, the inmate would work on small-scale projects like weaving or carpentry and would have zero communication with fellow inmates.

In this respect, the Quaker thought closely resembles the Vipassana school of meditation, attributed to Gautam Buddha and practiced in the East for centuries. Vipassana is a Sanskrit word that means ‘insight into the nature of reality’. It is a way of self-transformation through self-observation and introspection. My parents attended a Vipassana camp for beginners at Igatpuri in 2005 that lasted 10 days. During this time, they had to observe what was called ‘Noble Silence’ i.e. no communication with anyone (verbal, written or gestures). Papa loves to talk and he reported growing extremely restless within a day. After 2-3 days, he was in deep agony but with help of Anapana method of concentration, he soon felt better and was able to introspect. The course ended up being useful for my folks and it helped them alleviate their persistent anxiety to some extent. However, if you look at the Code of Conduct of the Dhamma Meditation Center, it reads like the manual that was probably provided to the inmates of the ESP upon entry. However, ESP differed in one crucial respect – unlike the Dhamma Meditation Center, it forced Vipassana on its inmates and that too endlessly.


An 1855 Lithograph of ESP

An 1855 Lithograph of ESP

The revolutionary radial design (shown above) by John Haviland (the architect who won a prize of $100 for it) would allow someone at the central hub to monitor all cellblocks at once. Each 8-by-12 feet cell with thick walls was equipped with a commode and an ‘Eye of God’ – a slit in the ceiling through which a shaft of light shone on the centre of the cell. Together with the vaulted church-like corridors, this was meant to instill the fear of watchful God upon the inmates. During the limited time an inmate came out into his individual area of exercise, a guard would put a hood on his face to minimize contact with anyone. No newspapers, no singing, no visitors. Within a few days of arrival, the inmate would request for some work to do and a Bible. The prison officials perhaps considered this very promising, as this indicated beginning of the penitence and the eventual cleansing of the mind and the soul. Quite appropriately, Dickens called it Philadelphia’s ‘Solitary Prison’.

In their zeal to create the perfect penitentiary, ESP founders had to pull a few unimaginable feats. During a time when even the White House probably did not have central heating and a sophisticated sewer system, ESP had both. At the time of completion, ESP was the largest public-works project ever undertaken in the US. The ESP model of prison design and administration was copied by over 300 prisons across the world and came to be recognized as the Pennsylvania System. 

However well-intentioned, the system never really worked. The forced Vipassana soon became traumatic and instead of becoming pious, the inmates would become mentally ill. Dickens, for one, criticized the system early on when he wrote, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

By the time the system was officially abandoned in 1913, it had all but fallen. The gradual decline of the Separate System in the favor of a congregate system was rooted more in economics than in ethics or medicine. The system was expensive as inmates could not be used for chores of running the prison. Aside from a high cost of maintenance and salaries of the staff, there was little income earned through production of low-value goods produced mostly through manual labor in separate cells. In contrast, the New York system (as symbolized by the Sing-Sing prison) allowed prisoners to work together and thus, absorbed many costs and produced income as well through in-house factories. Given the high cost of labor in the US, it is not surprising that the ESP model was copied everywhere but the US. Ironically, shortage of manpower at a national level perhaps helped get some inmates respite from ESP – an inscription inside the central hub (shown below) commemorates their sacrifice during the First World War but stops shy of naming them; ‘Everlasting Honor’ is conferred only upon their impersonal numbers.

First World War inscription inside ESP

First World War inscription inside ESP


I think that despite the dismal economics, the Pennsylvania System could have still been saved, had it shown the results that were originally expected. If there were evidence that the criminals were truly being reformed, I think the state could have continued to sponsor it. However, the system inflicted grave psychological injury on its inmates through solitary confinement. Contrast this with the success that Kiran Bedi achieved at the Tihar Jail with Vipassana in the early 1990’s (see the documentary made on the experiment, titled ‘Doing Time, Doing Vipassana’). Today, several correctional facilities in the world effectively use Vipassana for promoting reform.

Although what they achieved was still path-breaking, one wishes Dr Bernard Rush and Co. had realized that a judicious mix of the separate and congregate systems would have been more lasting for ESP. All Vipassana and no chit-chat must have made Charles a very dull man!


2 Responses

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  1. I speculate that this might have been a torture camp (or some kind of human rights violation) masquerading as penitentiary. Otherwise, it is of great disbelief to me that somebody even thought that this kind of self reform system would work. OR, may be, my average cerebral fails to understand the wisdom behind it.


    January 14, 2009 at 4:52 am

    • If you sit a 10day vipassana course even in a prison , you will know that at the start of every Vipassana Course the participants have to make a humble request to the teacher to teach them the technique of vipassana so that they can experience the nibbanic peace within themselves.
      What they taught wasn’t Vipassana. That is why it did not work.

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