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Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | one can always hope

Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | one can always hope - Essex County Jail Annex
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According to the law encyclopedia, the idea of incarcerating criminals as punishment for their crimes is an American one. Jails existed long before our country was found, but were used primarily to house prisoners until their sentence, be it corporal punishment, public humiliation, or execution, was carried out. There also were debtor's prisons, where people were held until they paid off all or a portion of what they owed, but this had nothing to do with committing crimes. This changed with the introduction of the penitentiary.

Proposed by the Quakers, penitentiaries were supposed to be more humane response to crime than corporal punishment or execution. The prisoners were kept in absolute silence and seclusion for extended periods of time so they could reflect on their crimes and thereby learn the error of their ways. The penitentiary system became a model upon which many other countries based their penal systems - it was viewed as more enlightened to isolate criminals from everyone and everything, even if it did have the disturbing side effect of frequently driving them mad. Eventually penitentiaries relaxed their standards, allowing prisoners to speak with guards or each other on a limited basis.

As crime in cities dramatically increased during the industrial age, prisons became an increasingly popular solution to nearly every social ill. Prison populations soared and crimes punishable by imprisonment multiplied. As the initial ideal - that of bludgeoning prisoners into remorse with vast, empty stretches of time - faded away, there was little that replaced it. Various improvements on the methodology of incarceration were proposed, such as Jeremy Bentham's fascinating and imposing Panopticon prison layout, but the theory behind its use as a form of punishment were (arguably) never successfully updated. While hotly debated among some circles, the prevailing belief was that those who commit crimes require punitive intervention in the form of removing them from surrounding society and placing them in harsh and brutal environments. Critics viewed prisons as little more than crime universities, where the amateur crook networks with and learns from those who are more hardened and feckless, and likely graduates with a greater knowledge of their trade and a deep and abiding hatred of the society that would condemn them to such treatment. While the penal system briefly flirted with the idea of using prisons to rehabilitate criminals to become productive members of society, this idea was abandoned fairly quickly. As it stands, recidivism rates for those imprisoned are high and the United States leads the world in the number and percentage of its population behind bars.

In light of this, it would appear that the prison system itself is a failure. It is extraordinarily expensive, and in many ways actively encourages criminals to commit more crimes. The horrors of the prison system can be grossly disproportionate to the offenses committed, and statistics prove again and again that prison sentences are sharply biased by a criminal's racial and economic standing. nevertheless, the problem remains: what does one do to deter crimes? How does society as a whole discourage theft, extortion, and the myriad of other offenses men and women are imprisoned for if not by incarceration? Is there ever a sympathetic or humane way to punish someone? Is it even possible to mitigate the damage done by such barbaric crimes as rape and murder, and if so, how? When the very concept of justice is so subjective, is it possible to attain it with the impartiality that its implementation as a form of a social institution demands?

There are no simple answers to these problems. Opinions seem to be sharply divided as to whether prisons are too harsh or too lenient, yet the existence of the prison system itself - and the dilemma of how to respond to crimes if not with incarceration - is rarely challenged. I see places like the Essex County Jail Annex as masses of unanswered questions, not as the solutions that our comfortable belief in our social superiority supposes. Perhaps one day someone with wisdom far greater than my own will concoct an entirely new and more effective response to the darkness in the human heart and the wretched acts that mankind commits, and all prisons will stand as empty as this one.

One can always hope.

Photograph and text by Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America. Essex County Jail Annex, Caldwell NJ. 2008.

If you'd like to learn more about this location, it is a featured chapter in the new Abandoned America book Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences. Signed copies are available through my website, or you can find (unsigned) copies available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online booksellers across the globe.

Also in: Essex County Jail Annex

Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Main Entrance
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Entry Stairwell
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Lobby Cage
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Visitor's Room
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | smaller and smaller every day
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Guard Station
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Cafeteria Entrance
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | the remorseless progression
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Day Room
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Caged Coffee
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | salvation lies within
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | Guard Desk
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | what recourse is left
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | this mirage of social justice
Essex County Jail Annex (Caldwell, NJ) | prisoners still