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For those of you who follow The Criminology Team on Facebook you might have caught @manosdaskalou and I live from Eastern State Penitentiary [ESP]. In this entry, I plan to reflect on that visit in a little more depth.
We first visited ESP in 2011 when the ASC conference was held in Washington, DC. That visit has never left me for a number of reasons, not least the lengths societies are prepared to go in order to tackle crime. ESP is very much a product of its time and demonstrates extraordinarily radical thinking about crime and punishment. For those who have studied the plans for Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon there is much which is familiar, not least the radial design (see illustration below).
This is an institution designed to resolve a particular social problem; crime and indeed deter others from engaging in similar behaviour through humane and philosophically driven measures. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons* was philanthropic and guided by religious principles. This is reflected in the term penitentiary; a place for sinners to repent and In turn become truly penitent.
This philosophy was distinct and radical with a focus on reformation of character rather than brutal physical punishment. Of course, scholars such as Ignatieff and Foucault have drawn attention to the inhumanity of such a regime, whether deliberate or unintentional, but that should not detract from its groundbreaking history. What is important, as criminologists, is to recognise ESP’s place in the history of penology. That history is one of coercion, pleading, physical and mental brutality and still permeates all aspects of incarceration in the twenty-first century. ESP have tried extremely hard to demonstrate this continuum of punishment, acknowledging its place among many other institutions both home and abroad.
For me the question remains; can we make an individual change their behaviour through the pains of incarceration? I have argued previously in this blog in relation to Conscientious Objectors, that all the evidence suggests we cannot. ESP, as daunting as it may have been in its heyday, would also seem to offer the same answer. Until society recognises the harm and futility of incarceration it is unlikely that penal reform, let alone abolition, will gain traction.
*For those studying CRI1007 it is worth noting the role of Benjamin Rush in this organisation.
Kirsty is a current undergraduate student. She has just completed her second year of study reading Criminology and Sociology.
The inspiration of this blog has developed from a recent trip to Riga, Latvia. Whilst the city itself is surrounded by cobbled streets, creative buildings and various water attractions; it is merely inevitable to miss Latvia’s criminological past. Many of the city’s museums’ and prominent statues are dedicated to war and occupation, with a particular focus towards the Soviet and Nazi regimes. The two historical landmarks of interest for the discussion of this blog will focus on the KGB Building and Riga Ghetto Holocaust museum.
Firstly, I would like to briefly discuss the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ as I think they are important to this text. It is easy to read of the happenings of the past; yet, sometimes it is experience that can enable an individual to truly grasp an understanding of how a society once operated. Upon entering a place whereby masses of people endured acts of repeated interrogation, violence and execution; events from the past become very surreal and complex.
To provide a brief history, the KGB was a secretive and secluded state- security organisation, involved in all aspects of life of everyday people in the Soviet Union. The organisation enforced Soviet morals and ideologies with various mechanisms such propaganda, which in turn, politically oppressed all citizens of Latvia. After the War, the KGB selected the Corner House for its headquarters, as its construction made it convenient for secretly transporting individual prisoners. The KGB Building has preserved its original layout, design and furniture from the Soviet times which allows for a genuine feel of its previous context. Interestingly, the tour guide that showed us round the prison was a former Russian prison officer, whereby we were shown various cells and rooms of importance. One aspect that really stood out to myself was a small cell that we were informed to enter, in which we were told roughly 30 prisoners at a time would be held inside singular cells like these. During the day time, lights were kept off and the heating was set to high- as you can imagine, this would have been extremely unpleasant in these conditions. The tour guide then told us to lightly cover our eyes, as he turned on several piercing bright lights, that even after a few minutes started to make myself feel dizzy. It was then explained that prisoners were prevented from sleeping with these lights being on each night; if caught covering their eyes by a prison guard, they would be beaten. Standing in the exact room of where individuals endured this kind of treatment allowed me to reflectively engage, both mentally and physically, of the complex issues of this dark historical time.
It could be argued that the KGB period hits close to home with the case of Alexander Litvinenko: a former officer of the Russian FSB who resided to Britain in escape of arrest by the Secret Service he had once been a part of. Litvinenko was allegedly poisoned to death by two Russian assassins, reinforcing the Soviet Union’s traditions of effectively ‘destroying the enemy’.
Another point of criminological interest was the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust museum; opened with the aim to preserve memories of the Jewish community in Latvia. On arrival, you are met with a memorial wall and informative stand that show the history of WW2 and the Holocaust- more than 70,000 names of Latvian Jews are recorded. Next, I approached a transportation waggon which were simply used to deport Jewish members to concentrations camps. However, oddly to myself, there were several tree branches inside the waggon itself. I then discovered that this represented those who were deemed ‘unfit’ for labour were taken to the Bikernieki forest- Latvia’s largest mass murder cite during the Holocaust period. As previously mentioned, it was the presence of being in a place whereby those same people lived in a society with arguably no humanity that is so difficult to fully digest.
As a Criminology student, visiting these institutions made real some of the key issues that emerge in class discussions, providing valuable, historical and international development of criminological debates. From an academic perspective; it is widely accepted that accounts should remain objective and avoid journalistic traits, yet the mass suffering of these events is inevitable to ignore.