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A brief history of the two major prison systems that evolved in the young United States.

by: brett bertolino

In the early 1800ís, two drastically different prison systems emerged in the young United States. The first system emerged in what was then the suburbs of Philadelphia with the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1822. This system, which later became known as the Pennsylvania system, stressed solitary confinement and repentance and was intended to be more humane than the prisons that preceded it. Religion and psychology also played a major role in this system. The inside of the prison was set up like a wagon wheel. One guard could stand in the central rotunda and see down every cell block, the spokes of the wheel. The outside of the prison with its massive walls looked like a fortress and was intended to serve as a deterrent to crime. This was all inmates saw of the penitentiary. When prisoners entered, their heads were covered by black hoods, and they never even entered the main building. Instead, they were led into their cells through their private exercise yards. In addition, the doors to the cells were low, forcing prisoners to bow when they entered. Once inside the cell, they found white washed walls, a vaulted ceiling similar to those found in monasteries (which also served to amplify sound to keep prisoners quiet), a small circular skylight which symbolized the eye of god, and a bible. These features of the cell were intended to promote penitence and quiet reflection.. Inmates had the option of work if they so choose. Meals were delivered through a slot in the door, and prisoners bathed in their cells. Bibles were the only books permitted and inmates could receive no mail. With the exception of the one hour each day, which was spent in their private exercise yards, prisoners never left their cells for the entire duration of their sentences. 
Eastern State was part of a reform movement started by Benjamin Rush, who founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, shortly after the American Revolution. He thought it would be humane to punish prisoners "in private and let them learn the value of work instead of the terror of public ridicule (Sheehan, 1992)." Over 500 prisons world wide were modeled after Eastern State, some even as recently as the 1960ís (Sheehan, 1992). However, while the philosophy of Eastern State may have looked good on paper it "began to unravel almost immediately. Some prisoners went crazy from isolation, and others committed suicide (Sheehan, 1992)." Eastern State officially abandoned the solitary confinement system in 1913; however, it broke down many years before (Kelley, 1997). Today, the Pennsylvania system is nothing more than a "historical curiosity (Rogers, 1993)." It is no longer taken seriously as a means to rehabilitate or control prisoners. 

The second system, the Auburn system, was named after the location of the first prison of its kind in Auburn, NY. Unlike the Pennsylvania system, this system had some seclusion, but it stressed congregate labor (Rogers, 1993). The Pennsylvania and Auburn systems went head to head in Auburn, NY when 83 of the most dangerous prisoners at Auburn were placed in small cells with no exercise or work (Rogers, 1993). Although prisoners of the Pennsylvania system were kept in seclusion, it is important to remember that they did exercise and had the option to work. In addition, all of the prisoners, not just the most dangerous, were kept in seclusion. This "experiment" resulted in a series of "self mutilations, suicides, and other deaths (Rogers, 1993)." Five years later the experiment was abandoned and the following observations were recorded: "In less than a year five of [them] had died, one became an idiot, another when his door opened dashed himself in from the gallery, and the rest with haggard looks and despairing voices begged to be set to work (Rogers, 1993)." 

Because prisoners could be used to perform such tasks as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and maintenance, the Auburn system was less expensive to operate and quickly became the model for American prisons. However, in the end, both systems eventually failed. 


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