I heard the happy news on Saturday that one of the prisons in my home town of Enfield is finally shuttered, after months of preparation. I’m glad. We’re on the right course when it comes to prisons in Connecticut, and we should follow it right to the end.
The now-empty Willard Correctional Institution is part of a complex of five current and former state prisons straddling Enfield and Somers, situated right up against the Massachusetts line. Willard joins the former Northern Correctional Institution in Somers and the Enfield Correctional Institution on the list of prisons in the complex that have been shuttered, but the Cybulski Community Reintegration Center, the Osborn Correctional Institution, and the Robinson Correctional Institution remain open.
Robinson has a feature unusual for prisons; a large, white clapboard house and barns, both dating from the 19th century. This, as well as a fenced-off cemetery marker across Route 220, is all that remains of the Shakers, a religious community that lived here from 1792 until the last few left in 1917.
The Shakers or “Shaking Quakers” were the followers of Ann Lee, also known as Mother Ann, who preached that strict celibacy and the confession of sins were the only way to salvation. The Shakers, who got their name from the fact that during worship an individual would sometimes dance, tremble, and sing when visions came upon them, also practiced pacifism, the abandonment of individual material possessions, and equality between genders. Mother Ann was seen as the embodiment of Christ’s second coming, an unheard of thing for a woman.
In the early days Shaker meetings were met with a lot of hostility, not just because of their radical theology, but because converts would forsake their marriages and possessions, leaving behind bewildered husbands or wives and children. In Enfield, they were originally threatened with being tarred, feathered, and run out of town. They were very, very different from the stuffy, worldly Congregationalists who dominated Connecticut in those days, and that led to plenty of friction.
But the Shaker community grew, and even prospered, during the early to mid 19th century. They welcomed new converts, and adopted orphaned children–though they did not force them to stay when they grew up. The farm was productive, and they ran a brisk business in seed packets and other crafts. Eventually they became something of a tourist attraction–they operated a train station near the farm, and people would come from all over to see these strange people and experience their legendary hospitality. Many would dine at the Shaker table.
They were devout, welcoming people, but they did not last. Eventually, their numbers dwindled until only a few remained. The last few left Enfield in 1917. After that, the property was leased for farming.
And then, in 1930, the state bought the property for use as a “prison farm,” where prisoners would labor in the fields. Before this, the only place for prisoners to go was the old state prison at Wethersfield, which was located on Wethersfield Cove where the DMV building stands now. The idea was that farm work would be a part of their rehabilitation. The old Shaker houses and barns were part of that farm.
In 1963, a new, modern prison was built at the farm to replace Wethersfield, and farm work was slowly phased out. But, as the crime rate increased and politicians were pressured to get tough on crime during the 1980s and 1990s, the prison population started to soar. New prisons opened in Enfield and Somers; Robinson in 1985, Willard in 1990, Cybulski in 1993, and Northern in 1995. Connecticut’s prison population peaked in 2007, with nearly 20,000 people behind bars.
But in the 2010s, the Malloy administration began to work to reduce this number. New programs, as well as much lower crime rates, helped diminish prisoner numbers to about 14,000 in 2017, and to a low of 8,945, less than half of the 2007 total, in 2021. The population has rebounded somewhat since then, as of March 1, 2023, there are about 10,000 inmates in Connecticut jails and prisons. 2,510 of them are held in the Enfield/Somers prisons, on the former lands of the Shakers.
It’s galling that the few remaining Shaker buildings are used by the prisons. They are historic treasures, the legacy of a unique people. Other Shaker sites around the northeast are preserved and have museums, but not here.
The gentle, peaceful Shakers would have been horrified to learn what their home had become. Mother Ann, who was herself imprisoned in England for her beliefs, would likely find it an abomination.
Someday, I hope all of the prisons here close. The Shaker house should be a museum, and the beautiful, rolling hills of their land should be a state park. This is my dream.
But more than that, I want us to keep following the path we’re on now. We still imprison far too many people in this country. We must keep exploring alternatives to locking people up, such as restorative and community justice, and we must work to reduce the poverty, inequality, and desperation that often breeds crime in the first place.
And maybe, someday far in the future, we will have no more need of prisons. I know, I’m a stubborn, hardheaded idealist. But at least here in Enfield, where the Shakers once lived lives wholly dedicated to their beliefs and their faith, I’m in good company.