“we can and must make it something else.”

I am occasionally surprised to encounter beautiful writing in my work. This quote comes from a 1945 essay in Prison World entitled “Jails: Yesterday and Today” by Leon T. Stern, then Secretary of Pennsylvania Committee on Penal Affairs of The Public Charities Association. An elegant reminder of Pennsylvania’s strong tradition of abolitionism and some of the same questions that face us today.

“The jail is the proto-prison from which all our local penal institutions have grown. We have called it jail, house of correction, workhouse, county prison, city prison, county penitentiary. It is always being attacked, always being abolished and demolished for its sins against the human spirit. Reformed it rises from its own rubble, flourishes briefly as a newly discovered institution, and soon is a jail again. It seems to grow of itself alone. The jail is made not of steel and stone but of our hates, our fears, our defenses and is destroyed and remade by our compassions when its iniquities become too great. When we have attained true justice the day envisioned by Charles Dickens may come, and the doors of the jails will be barred as firmly from the outside as we now bar them from the inside. Jail gates still close avidly on all we can herd and crowd through them.”


“The jail has not  been  abolished.  When we recall that ten times as many men enter the local prisons as find their way into state prisons and reformatories, the difficulties of abolition of the county jails become apparent. We can depopulate it, we can decrease the use of it; but we are not as yet prepared to have it disappear completely. There may be “something that does not love a wall.” But as long as we are not prepared to substitute completely other methods of treatment for reformation through imprisonment (discovered so victoriously by the great torchbearers of the past), it cannot fully ’abolish’ the jail. We can and must make it something else.”

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