The Pennsylvania Prison System: History & Reform

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

From colonial times to the present, the purpose, methods and execution of criminal punishment has dramatically changed. In this lesson, we will look at the early Pennsylvania Prison System and learn its role in prison reform in the United States.

Early Punishment

His fellow colonists could tell William lived a life of crime. His ears were cropped, and lash marks scarred his back. His right palm bore a charred ''B'' for burglary, and on the left, ''R'' for rogue. If his crimes piled any higher, death was the last best hope the colony leaders had for his reform. His great grandson, Edward, also led a life of crime in the Pennsylvania colony, but no scars or bands betrayed his deeds. His punishment? Sitting in a cell, alone, to reflect on his deeds in hope that he'll be a reformed man. Why the dramatic change in punishment approaches? Did it work?

Pain and public humiliation were wrought on pillory towers such as this one.

By today's standards, crime and punishment in early colonial times seem both petty and horrific. During William's time, retribution (where the convict is given their just desserts) was the primary goal, and punishment was both excruciating and public. A death sentence met those who committed the biggies like murder and rape. But for all other sins like lying, conjuring, adultery, skipping church and being without means, various levels of pain, torture and public humility were ordered.

Respite Or The Birth Of Reform?

William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony, having suffered in the prisons of England, ushered in reforms in 1680. Those convicted of small crimes got bail, and more serious crimes were punished by hard labor. The jails were replaced with workhouses where the prisoner worked most of the day and learned a trade to be useful when released. Free food and rudimentary health care was provided. Torture and humiliation was replaced with a modicum of dignity and humanity.

Penn died in 1718, and by all accounts, his reforms died with him. However, many scholars give Penn credit for moving the needle of reform if only a few degrees. Hard labor and floggings replaced branding and maiming, and though retribution was still the stated goal, reformation of the offender was now being openly considered.

The Quaker Friends and The Pennsylvania Prison Society

In 1787, Benjamin Franklin and a group of fellow Quakers, formed the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. This later became the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and they began lobbying for significant reforms in the prison system. In 1790, they got their wish. Legislation was passed that converted a city jail built on Walnut Street in 1773 to the nation's first penitentiary (a prison with the purpose of rehabilitation and reform). The Quakers believed that a separate system should be instituted where a prisoner could seek penitence though isolation and reflection.

The Walnut Street Jail was converted and small, one person rooms with only a small unreachable window were added. The prisoner was given materials and tools to make shoes, nails, tools and clothes. They were used in the prison system, and surpluses were sold to the public. The prisoner saw no one but their guard, and then only once a day.

The Pennsylvania System

The Pennsylvania Prison Society pressured the legislature to expanded the Walnut Street model across the state. Dignitaries and officials from other states and England visited to see and judge these reforms for themselves. This became known as the Pennsylvania Prison System which possessed the following attributes:

  • Isolation to foster penitence as the prisoner had time to reflect on his or her misdeeds.
  • Humanitarian based as it provided better food and health care.
  • Prisoners worked alone to make goods and learn a trade.
  • The focus moved from retribution to rehabilitation.

The End Of An Era

The Pennsylvania reforms brought overcrowding and increased costs. Soon the individual rooms gave way to larger rooms with multiple inmates, and fewer inmates learned a skill as demand dried up for their products. The prisons devolved into human storehouses which soon became riddled with filth and disease.

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