- Historic Sites
How Did Our Prisons Get That Way?
The penitentiary was invented in the United States as a more rational and humane way of punishing. It quickly ran into problems that still overwhelm us.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
By the early 1800s Walnut Street and other prisons were gruesome places. The early prison historian Richard Phelps described the prison established in 1790 in an abandoned copper mine at Simsbury, Connecticut—one of the first after Walnut Street: “The passage down the shaft into the cavern was upon a ladder fastened upon one side and resting on the bottom. At the foot of this passage commences a gradual descent for a considerable distance, all around being solid rock or ore....On the sides, in the niches of the cavern, platforms were built of boards for the prisoners, on which straw was placed for their beds. The horrid gloom of this dungeon can scarcely be realized. The impenetrable vastness supporting the awful mass above impending as if ready to crush one to atoms; the dripping water trickling like tears from its sides; the unearthly echoes, all conspired to strike aghast with amazement and horror. A bell summoning the prisoners to work brought them up from the cavern beneath through a trapdoor, in regular numbers, two or three together....The prisoners were heavily ironed and secured by fetters and being therefore unable to walk made their way by jumps and hops. On entering the smithy some went to the side of the forges where collars dependent by iron chains from the roof were fastened around their necks and others were chained in pairs to wheelbarrows. The attendants delivered pickled pork to the prisoners for dinner at their forges, a piece for each thrown on the floor and left to be washed and boiled in the water used for cooling the iron wrought at the forges. Meat was distributed in a similar manner for breakfast.”
By 1817 the Philadelphia Society acknowledged that Walnut Street had so degenerated that as many as forty prisoners were being housed in an eighteen-by-eighteen-foot room, that it was now no different from a European jail, and that it had become a virtual “seminary for vice.” As a remedy the society persuaded the Pennsylvania legislature to build two new prisons—one in eastern and one in western Pennsylvania. These were to be built with only single cells, so that every inmate could be kept alone, eliminating all the problems of congregate living.
The criminal justice situation in New York before the 1790s had been similar to that in Pennsylvania: many crimes called for capital punishment, and corporal punishment was extensive. In 1794 reformers from New York visited Philadelphia and decided to emulate Walnut Street. New York reduced its list of capital crimes to just murder and treason, and two prisons were built—one at Albany and one in Greenwich Village. As in Pennsylvania, they soon became overcrowded. Conditions so degenerated that in 1816 a third and very different prison was authorized, at Auburn.
The Auburn prison followed a new scheme: the worst offenders went into solitary confinement; but a second class was put in separate cells three days a week, and minor offenders were allowed to work together six days a week. By 1823 most of the Auburn inmates serving long terms in solitary had suffered mental breakdowns. Isolation was discontinued, and the governor pardoned most of the remaining isolated inmates. The Auburn system was now revamped to allow congregate work by day for all (with a rule of total silence) and solitary confinement by night. This was essentially a compromise between total group living, which had led to such horrendous conditions earlier, and total isolation, which bred insanity.
These developments in Pennsylvania and New York became the basis for a tremendous thirty-five-year rivalry between what were seen as the two basic forms of the prison: the individual system, represented by Pennsylvania, and the congregate system, represented by Auburn. The supporters of the Pennsylvania system (the Philadelphia Society) called Auburn a cheap imitation. Auburn’s defenders (the Boston Prison Discipline Society) called the individual system extravagant and claimed it led to death and insanity while failing to eliminate interaction between inmates, since heat ducts and water pipes still allowed clandestine communication.
As various states contemplated prison construction, they moved firmly into one camp or the other. The Reverend Louis Dwight, self-styled spokesman for the Boston Prison Discipline Society, made sure that state legislatures contemplating building prisons received copies of his annual reports. He promoted the Auburn system with religious zeal and regarded any opposition as heretical. His reports were quite misleading—as were those promulgated by advocates of the individual system—but he was very effective in encouraging other states to emulate Auburn.
Prison reformers in both camps agreed that the great mistake of the 1790s had been the failure to keep inmates from associating with one another. The only issue was whether they should labor and eat silently in groups or remain alone in their cells. For this reason prison architecture—the layout of cells, eating and sleeping arrangements, and work facilities —became a vital concern.