How Did Our Prisons Get That Way?

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The largest ground swell for reform in America came from Quakers, and they played a crucial role in inventing the prison. Most of them lived in Pennsylvania and western New Jersey—in and around the nation’s most important city, Philadelphia—and they were the only significant religious group to find brutal criminal punishments irreconcilable with their Christian beliefs. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, as new ideas about punishment spread, the Quakers set about to transform penal practices.

First, in 1786 they persuaded the Pennsylvania legislature to limit the death penalty to murder, treason, rape, and arson. People convicted of robbery, burglary, sodomy, or buggery would now have to give up their possessions and be imprisoned for up to ten years; if convicted of larceny, they could have to make double restitution (half to the state) and spend up to three years in prison. Next, the Quakers took on the terrible conditions in jails. Philadelphia jails locked up men and women in the same rooms at night. Inmates were thrown together with no regard for age, seriousness of offense, or ability to defend themselves. Liquor was sold on the premises. And detainees had to pay a fee to underwrite their own incarcerations, even if they were found innocent of any crime.

In 1787 the Quakers and their sympathizers formed the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. Many prominent citizens took up the banner. In March, Dr. Benjamin Rush gave a lecture at the home of Benjamin Franklin in which he recommended dividing a large house into apartments for convicts, with special cells for the solitary confinement of troublesome inmates.

The Philadelphia Society soon persuaded the Pennsylvania legislature to convert a jail on Walnut Street into a prison for the confinement of convicted criminals from across the state. It was designed for two classes of inmates: serious offenders would be housed in sixteen solitary cells; less hardened ones would sleep in large rooms and would work together in shops. This became the first prison as we know it.

The creation of the Walnut Street prison in 1790 elicited tremendous enthusiasm in Philadelphia. It promised a vast improvement in the treatment of jailed offenders. And the initial results were very promising. Yearly commitments dropped from 131 in 1789 to just 45 in 1793. Burglars and pickpockets seemed to disappear from Philadelphia, and few discharged prisoners were caught committing new crimes. The Pennsylvania legislature was so impressed that it again amended the law in 1794 to reduce the number of crimes calling for capital punishment to just one: first-degree murder.

When society began putting into practice the new theories of penology, Americans became confident that a rational system of certain but humane punishment would vastly reduce crime. If colonial laws had contributed to crime, new laws would deter it. The prison was necessary, but the focus was on the laws, not on the nature of the prison. No one was yet arguing that life inside a prison would improve anybody.

The Walnut Street prison, the first in the world, served as the prototype for all other prisons built in this country over the next thirty years. But just as the Walnut Street Prison represented a dramatic departure from colonial practices, so developments in New York and Pennsylvania in the 1820s represented another departure of even greater magnitude—one that was to make even Europe vitally interested in the course of American penology. Before that happened, things went to pieces in Walnut Street.

Despite the initial enthusiasm over the prison, conditions soon became dreadful. As yet no one had very clear ideas about what prisons should look like or how they should be run. Between 1790 and 1820 they tended to be like houses where all prisoners not in solitary confinement lived in common rooms and ate in large dining halls. It was difficult to avoid putting more and more offenders in the large rooms, and this caused overcrowding and management problems. Moreover, it was hard to make inmates work. Difficulties with uncooperative prisoners led to a gradual resurrection of the very corporal punishments the prison had been created to eliminate, although some prisons did try using isolation and the withholding of rations to control inmates.