The Scripture today is part of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple. He prays for God to forgive the people when they sin and then repent. Repentance is a necessary part of changing one’s life both spiritually and socially.
One of the first “modern” prisons was Eastern State Penitentiary, built outside of Philadelphia, PA, in 1829. It was built on principals championed by the Society of Friends (Quakers) and was a radical departure from the torture and executions that had been used for punishment in Europe and other parts of the US. Under the new model, corporal punishment of inmates was prohibited. The building, modeled after a monastery with small sky-lit cells for individual inmates, was intended to be a place where inmates would have ample time to reflect on their “crime” and come to regret their action. Like a monastery, inmates were expected to maintain silence at all times and there was no interaction with other inmates. Inmates spent their time alone reading the Bible and working with their hands (making shoes, weaving, etc)—all with the goal that inmates become penitent. Hence, penitentiary.
The model was not without controversy. Charles Dickens expressed concern of the effects of silence and solitary confinement on the brain. Alexis de Tocqueville reported to the French government that this model was a powerful tool for total reformation of the criminal. The critics eventually prevailed and the Pennsylvania system of solitary confinement and silence was abandoned by 1913.
While the word ‘penitentiary’ continues in our vocabulary, would you say our current system is designed to punish criminals or move them toward rehabilitation? If our prisons do not rehabilitate (and our recidivism rate would suggest that they do not), what other model might work better? What could a Christian model of rehabilitation possibly look like?
Rehabilitation is at the core of the Danish prison system and the evidence suggests that it works. Learn more about the Danish system HERE. Do you think such a system would work in the US? Why or why not?