With respect of the plan of a Prison …I had heard of a benevolent society in England which had been indulged by the government in an experiment of the effect of labor in _solitary confinement_ on some of their criminals, which experiment had succeeded beyond expectation …This I sent to the Directors instead of a plan of a common prison, in the hope that it would suggest the idea of labor in solitary confinement instead of that on the public works … In 1796 … They adopted solitary, instead of public labor, established a gradation in the duration of the confinement … Autobiography, 1821
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders seek rehabilitation in punishment.
Jefferson’s original revision of the criminal code reduced the number of capital offenses from several dozen to just two, for murder and treason. Lesser crimes received hard labor, often on public works building roads and canals. Experience, though, showed that prisoners being “exhibited as a public spectacle, with shaved heads and mean clothing, working on the high roads” didn’t rehabilitate. Instead, it produced the “most desperate & hardened depravity of morals and character.” It made men worse, not better.
Borrowing from successful experiments in Europe, he proposed “labor in … solitary confinement.” (This must mean labor within the prison complex rather than in public, and not solitary confinement as we understand it today.) Virginia built a “Penitentiary” instead of “a common prison” with this idea in mind. Fifteen years later, Virginia abandoned hard public labor for prisoners.
The last line in this excerpt implies a gradual improvement in an inmate’s work status through the course of his confinement.