Monday, June 7, 2010

A Place to Rest and Reflect.

c. David Grim (taken 7/14/08)

In the latter half on the 19th Century, a man of mixed ancestry (half-Irish/half-Chinese) found himself in a cell very much like the one pictured here at the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. He was a pickpocket and grifter who would have likely been lost to obscurity if he had not written a 99-page, 13-paragraph, run-on memoir. His name was George Appo. I just completed "A Pickpocket's Tale" (written by Timothy J. Gilfoyle), which related the story of Appo and his times.

During that period the American penal system was split between two different models. Eastern Penitentiary was designed by men who believed that convicted criminals should be kept in complete seclusion. Each cell had its own exercise yard, and whenever a convict was outside of his cell he was forced to wear a monk's robe with a cowl obscuring his vision. The idea was that this would lead the criminal to reflect deeply on his own personal feelings.

The competing model was one of complete silence. Sing Sing (New York) held to the belief that if inmates were kept from communicating with each other, then they would be easier to manage. George Appo spent a couple of terms in Sing Sing as well. There he learned to march in lock-step with his fellow prisoners, bound together by chains and constant contact.

In the 150 years since, both of these approached to correction have fallen by the wayside. Overcrowding has made these strategies logistically impossible. Now we have the prison industry, one of the fastest growing economic sectors (especially in rural areas) of the entire country. Gilfoyle's book can be dry and repetitive at times, but its rich detail can make the demimonde of the late 1800's come alive for the reader. If you really want to correct the common perception that the "good old days" are behind us, you might want to give "A Pickpocket's Tale" the once-over.