Letters from Inside: The Prison Writings of Elizabeth Velora Elwell of Eastern State Penitentiary, 1862

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:40 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Erica Rhodes Hayden, Travecca Nazarene University
The rise of the penitentiary system in the nineteenth century was part of a broader shift in public attitudes towards criminality.  Antebellum reformers believed that criminals could be redeemed to society.  They imagined a penal discipline regime that would allow criminals to be reformed and released back into society as positively contributing citizens.  These penal institutions held both men and women.  Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was one such institution that offered a strict rehabilitation program.  Due to smaller numbers and lack of proper oversight of the female population, female inmates faced dire conditions, as isolation, silence, and anonymity were critical aspects of the reform process.  Inmates found ways to resist this regime, and this paper examines the role that letter writing played in allowing inmates to connect with the outside world or to others also inside prison walls.  By producing letters and other writings during a period in which the voices of inmates are rarely heard, this paper, reveals how some inmates, women in particular, resisted prison protocol and anonymity within the institution by utilizing the written word to tell their stories, protect their individuality, and to ease the drudgery of prison life.  This paper focuses on the letters and poetry penned by Eastern State inmate Elizabeth Velora Elwell, who spent time incarcerated in 1862.
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