- 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
Reformers in the 1820s agreed that inmates must never mix with one another.
Attitudes had already changed drastically since the prison’s first years. Whereas the focus had been on more humane laws, which were supposed to eliminate crime from society, now it was believed that laws had failed but the internal routine of the prison could reform offenders before returning them to society. In 1829 and 1830 inspectors at the Auburn prison interviewed inmates about to be released in hope of uncovering clues to the origins of their criminality. It emerged that most of them had come from broken or otherwise unwholesome homes. The inspectors concluded that a lack of rigorous childhood training in discipline and obedience was, along with exposure to vice, a major cause of crime. If so, order and discipline in the penitentiary should inculcate criminals with proper values and work habits, and isolation from evil influences should allow the basic goodness in man to emerge.
So much effort was expended to isolate inmates from the evils of society that even newspapers were banned from one prison. Correspondence with one’s family was typically either forbidden or limited to one letter during the whole confinement. The occasional visitor had to be of unquestioned moral character. The warden of Sing Sing (established in 1824) told inmates in 1826: “It is true that while confined here you can have no intelligence concerning relatives or friends. … You are to be literally buried from the world.”
The Pennsylvania system isolated the inmate for his entire stay. He was to leave the institution as ignorant of his fellow convicts as when he arrived. A convict arriving at Pennsylvania’s Eastern Penitentiary was examined by a physician and then given a hot bath and some clothes. Later he was blindfolded and led to a central rotunda, where the superintendent explained the rules and operation of the prison. Then, still blindfolded, he was taken to his cell, whose number became his name. He was allowed to exercise in the little yard next to his cell only when the inmates in the adjoining yards were not present. He was left alone except when brought meals. After a few days he was asked if he would like some work—an offer usually accepted because of boredom. If he behaved, he would be allowed a Bible. So isolated were the prisoners that they did not hear for months about a cholera epidemic that decimated Philadelphia, and not one inmate caught the disease.
At Auburn prisoners slept alone in their cells at night but worked and ate in groups. They were forbidden to converse or even to exchange glances with other inmates. Strict routines were established to maintain this silence. Since Auburn officials couldn’t have inmates casually walking from place to place, they invented the lockstep. Standing immediately behind one another, each looking over the shoulder of the man ahead, with faces turned down and to the right to prevent conversation, prisoners shuffled along in unison. The lockstep survived until the 1930s.
The routine at Auburn was described graphically, if uncritically, in an 1826 report of the Boston Prison Discipline Society: “The unremitted industry, the entire subordination, and subdued feeling among the convicts, has probably no parallel among any equal number of convicts. In their solitary cells, they spend the night with no other book than the Bible, and at sunrise they proceed in military order, under the eye of the turnkey, in solid columns, with the lock march to the workshops, thence in the same order at the hour of breakfast, to the common hall, where they partake of their wholesome and frugal meal in silence. Not even a whisper might be heard through the whole apartment.
“Convicts are seated in single file, at narrow tables with their backs toward the center, so that there can be no interchange of signs. If one has more food than he wants, he raises his left hand, and if another has less, he raises his right hand, and the waiter changes it. … There is the most perfect attention to business from morning till night, interrupted only by the time necessary to dine—and never by the fact that the whole body of prisoners have done their tasks and the time is now their own, and they can do as they please.
“At the close of the day, a little before sunset, the work is all laid aside, at once, and the convicts return in military order, to the silent cells where they partake of their frugal meal, which they are permitted to take from the kitchen, where it is furnished for them, as they returned from the shop. After supper, they can, if they choose, read the scriptures, undisturbed, and can reflect in silence on the error of their lives. They must not disturb their fellow prisoners by even a whisper.”
Many important Europeans came to visit these institutions with the hope of applying the new systems at home. In fact, the typical distinguished foreigner would no more have passed up a chance to visit a prison than he would have missed seeing a Southern plantation or a Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mill. Alexis de Tocqueville’s second main objective during his visit, after studying our form of government, was the examination of our prisons. He found strengths and weaknesses in both systems. In his view, inmates at Auburn were treated more harshly, but at Pennsylvania they were more unhappy. He concluded that seclusion was physically unhealthy but morally effective; and that although the Pennsylvania system was more expensive to construct and operate, it was easier to administer.