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The Modern Monastery: Pussy Riot in Prison

October 11, 2012 | by

Philadelphia's Walnut Street Penitentiary

“Prison,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in her interview with GQ, “is like a monastery—it’s a place for ascetic practices.” Member of the celebrated but incarcerated band Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova gave voice to the belief that prison can be a soul-changing institution: an idea that inspired the American penal system.

The same year that America declared its independence from Great Britain, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail opened. Its first major addition came in 1790 at the instigation of Quaker reformers who proposed “a penitentiary house” of sixteen individual cells for solitary confinement.

The penitentiary, unlike jails or prisons, set itself to the task of rehabilitating prisoners. Religious penance became the paradigm for criminal punishment; the monastic chamber served as the model for the prison cell. Walnut Street exemplified the philosophy of what became known as the Pennsylvania System, which separated prisoners from one another while enforcing silence and manual labor as mechanisms for transformation.

The prison reform movement in Philadelphia culminated in the opening of the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829. Here the Pennsylvania System took shape as prisoners learned trades like shoemaking and weaving in their solitary cells lit only by skylights that let in heaven’s glow through vaulted ceilings.

Charles Dickens and Alexis de Tocqueville both visited Eastern State, with Dickens condemning the cruelty of the institution’s isolation, but de Tocqueville observing enthusiastically in 1831: “Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope”?

Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova echoed de Tocqueville last week when she said: “Prison is a good place to learn to really listen to your own mind and your own body.”

By embracing the monastic aspects of their sentence, Tolokonnikova attempts to situate Pussy Riot’s experience in a canon of carceral literature that goes all the way back to the Apostle Paul, whom the band cited in their closing statements at the Khamovnichesky Court in August.

Paul too was arrested for defiling a holy place: the Temple in Jerusalem, not Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, though he was attempting to make an offering, not staging a punk prayer or engaging in a public orgy. It was during his second imprisonment at Rome that he wrote his famous epistles to the Colossians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and Philemon.

An earlier imprisonment at Philippi described in the Book of Acts features Paul “praying and singing hymns to God” from inside his cell. One imagines that the Apostle’s optimism was shared by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote of his one night in jail: “I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.”

Jailed for tax evasion in 1846, Thoreau explains what Pussy Riot intimates in their interview: prison, like the monastery, can be the site of profound reflection. "I could not but smile,” Thoreau wrote in his treatise, “to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance.”

Meditations in a penitentiary, “Civil Disobedience” took shape during Thoreau’s imprisonment. His taxes had gone unpaid for six years, but it was not until Thoreau went into the modern monastery that he began crafting the narrative of conscience that explained his own refusal to support a government that allowed slavery and waged imperialist wars like the one against Mexico.

Another such explanation for civil disobedience came in 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for the thirteenth time. “Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas,” King lamented in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Taking time to respond to “A Call for Unity” by seven Christian clergymen and one rabbi who had asked civil rights activists to stop protesting in Alabama, King concluded his letter with an apology for its length: “what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”

King’s experience fulfills the hope of the reformers who designed Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, though surely they intended their design for criminals and not civil-rights activists.

Pussy Riot has attempted to find solidarity with these earlier carceral authors, but the band’s obscenity and anarchy are quite distinct from King’s nonviolent marches and Thoreau’s civil disobedience. Even their patron, Saint Paul, was arrested after a crowd of fanatics started a riot around him, not because he was rioting.

Moreover, the transformation of prison into monastery that Pussy Riot asserts belies the reality of the modern prison system, which truly deserves protest. Numerous international human rights organizations have documented abuse, disease, and torture in the Russian penal system. And for the more than six million Americans in the correctional system, the Quaker dream of rehabilitative contemplation is nowhere to be found in the nightmare of dangerous and retributive facilities.

That is why the genre of carceral literature found today is so unlike Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy or John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan and Boethius were able to imagine a world outside of prison, inventing adventures and allegories that took place beyond their jail cells.

Contemporary carceral works are more likely to expose the conditions of life inside prison walls, to denounce the criminal activity that led to the author’s imprisonment, and to lament the justice system that so often fails its citizens. Son of Sam laws complicate a prisoner’s efforts to profit from describing his or her crimes, but much of the prison literature that is anthologized today includes letters, memoirs, autobiographies, and diaries of life during and before imprisonment.

Prison writing workshops, like prison ministries, promote rehabilitation through confession and reflection. While the ministries are usually focused on inmates, the workshops attempt to reform society as well as the offenders by giving voice to the conditions that create and frustrate incarceration. In this way, prisons really can become monasteries: communities for learning and reform, within and without.

Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

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2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Donna | October 11, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    I can’t help but feel that your journalistic talent would have been better served on behalf of those 6 million incarcerated in America’s legislatively-backed for-profit prison system.

  2. Mack | October 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Thank you, Donna, for speaking against an evil practice. The punishment of criminals is a function of the state (which the state is not doing very well); human beings, even if they are bad, should never be sold. Anyone who invests in or works for a private prison is profiting from slavery.

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