In 1874, a 14 year old boy named Jesse Pomeroy was arrested for murder, denied counsel at trial, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging. But Massachusetts Governor William Gaston refused to sign the death warrant, and eventually the sentence was commuted to life in prison in solitary confinement.
At nearly 52 years old, Pomeroy describes for the New York Times Sunday Magazine what life is like in solitary confinement and pleads for better conditions:
Having received the paper to write, I will put down a few particulars of my case in the hope that, as I have been closely confined almost thirty-six years, since I was fourteen years old, I may, at this date, be allowed a few privileges…
[For years I was allowed privileges for good behavior.] Now this prisoner’s life is always the same, year in, year out. I have no prospect of privileges by good conduct, which has been good many years, as I told you.
Besides this, I am to-day worse off as to light, air, human society and opportunity to see officials, than I was in 1875-1895.
The sentence as to-day carried out is harsher, more oppressive than in those nineteen years; but it is the same sentence as in 1876.
My windows are opaque glass cutting off much light.
I ask clear glass, as I always did have.
No sunshine reaches into my cell. I always had a sunny room, the windows being 33 in. by 23 in.
My room to-day has the ventilation closed up, contrary to law, from no fault of mine.
There was no closed blank door on my cell to 1895, because my sentence was hardship enough, and there was no idea of denying me a chance to see a soul.
Since 1895 that closed door has been illegally shut on me, and Governor Douglas ordered it open for a little while in the daytime, so that I might have a little air.
It is shut eighteen hours a day and ought to be taken off, being contrary to my sentence.
Very seldom can I see any State House officials.
Very seldom can I obtain from them an answer to any letter that I write.
Except once or twice a year they do not come near me.
Exercise, as ordered by Governor Ames, is refused to me.
I respectfully suggest that this prisoner may have some encouragement in doing well. He is no worse than his neighbors. Kindness is never lost on anyone, and this prisoner has all his life shown himself responsive to kind treatment. Although I have made some errors here, I have never once been violent or dangerous.
No officer has ever accused me of it. The register shows the fact, as I say, yet the newspapers have been full of yarns about me, as, for instance, that I tried to kill the warden, and so was shut up in a cell (New York World, 1889).
I should be allowed to write sixteen letters a year, the rule. I can write but twelve.
Upon reflection, I think I have clearly and fully stated the case as I view it. I would do well if given an opportunity.
Actually, that wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be. For comparison, you should check out this 2006 series from NPR about life in solitary confinement.
In 1917, Pomeroy’s sentence was eventually commuted and, while he wasn’t pardoned, he was afforded the same privileges as other prisoners. In 1932, at the age of 72, he died in a hospital for the criminally insane.
FROM HIS CELL JESSE POMEROY PLEADS FOR CLEMENCY: Only “Solitary” in Massachusetts Tells the Story of His Thirty-four-year Confinement — The Unusual Punishment of an Extraordinary Crime. (PDF)
From October 30, 1910