BURIED FROM THE WORLD
Inside the Massachusetts State Prison, 1929-1831
The Memorandum Books of the Rev. Jared Curtis
Edited by Philip F. Gura
Northeastern University Press: Boston, 2001
"When you enter this prison", [the warden explained
to the new inmates], "you are to be literally buried from the world."
Citation from Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System in the
United States, and Its Application in France, Philadelphia, 1833, at p. 32 [at p. xi]
Buried from the World is a fascinating and revealing look at the lives of hundreds of prisoners confined in the Massachusetts State Prison in Charleston during the years 1929-1831, as recorded in private "memorandum books" drawn by the prison chaplain following upon private interviews. The words he consigned nearly two hundred years ago lay bare the lives, the passions, the fears and the almost hopeless lives of so many prisoners who were confined in what was seen as a model and trail-blazing institution. In this respect, it must be noted that n many cases the interview with the Chaplain was one of the quite rare opportunities afforded to the prisoners to speak as the prevailing rule was to shroud them in silence, to create a sepulchral atmosphere thought conducive to reformation.
In Buried from the World, the reader can discover how many were intoxicated at the time of their wrongdoing, how few enjoyed any education worth describing and how often those condemned suggest that despair and penury led to the commission of their crimes. Further, Rev. Curtis makes plain the abiding prejudice of the day against immigrants (notably the Irish) and anyone engaged in an occupation renowned for dissipation such as those engaged "on the Sea". And, as a final introductory comment, it is noteworthy that there were no separate facilities for youthful offenders.
If the question is asked what a modern-day criminologist may draw from a study of these memoranda, the answer will include the following:
- A penetrating look at the correlation between intemperance and offending;
- Multiple insights identifying a link between poverty and crime;
- A better understanding of the impact of an early release mechanism system and the maintenance of order in the case of detainees facing life or long-term imprisonment;
- An early introduction to the "three strikes you're out!" method of sentencing as a third serious offence was visited with a life term;
- A close look at the incentive for reformation held out by offering greater comforts (a quite relative term) to those wishing to apply themselves in industry and study;
- Certain limited but potentially valuable insights into the management of individuals having in common certain shared values, be they religious scruples or military discipline (such as it was); and,
- An improved understanding of the value of initial, mid-term and exit interviews to measure the motivations of detainees for rehabilitation.
In addition, Buried From the World is also of assistance in disclosing a variety of insights into sentencing practices that are still in use today. For example, in most cases, we see a noticeable "jump" in the selection of a second sentence but this increase is not very pronounced in the case of third offences, possibly by reason of the automatic assignment of a life term as a "third strike". In addition, the record of the interviews appears to suggest that property offences were dealt with more harshly than offences of violence, although this may be distorted by the factor of capital punishment having eliminated the possibility of interviewing those guilty of major violent offences. And, thirdly, modern penologists may profit from a review of the words of Rev. Curtis, as surrogates for the views of those detained, that inadequate re-entry resources doomed them to recidivism. All in all, although the world has changed a great deal by reason of compulsory education, the creation of a welfare and social safety net and the increased understanding of the special needs of youthful offenders, one cannot help but profit from a review of what led offenders to offend (and to further offend) as regards the lack of education, the difficulties in finding employment in a period of massive technological changes, the easy availability of intoxicants, and the distrust of foreign-born individuals, to name but a few examples...