The roots of America’s sprawling prison system, which houses over 2.2 million inmates, go back to an idea hatched in Ben Franklin’s living room.
In a recent story on America’s toughest prison — the federal “Supermax” ADX penitentiary in Colorado — the New York Times included an intriguing anecdote:
At a salon hosted by Benjamin Franklin, a pamphlet was read calling for the construction of a “house of repentance,” in which solitude could work to soothe the minds of criminals — an enlightened alternative, the group believed, to inhumane “public punishments” like “the gallows, the pillory, the stocks, the whipping post, and the wheelbarrow.”
In 1787, a group of Philadelphians, many of whom belonged to the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, gathered in Benjamin Franklin’s living room. More than 30 years later, the ideas discussed that day led to the creation of Eastern State Penitentiary, widely considered one of the first modern prisons.
Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary differed from other criminal punishments at the time. The layout, designed by famed architect John Haviland, featured seven wings of 250 individual cells, each with its own centrally-heated, private cell with a toilet (and running water), a skylight, and a walled-off outdoor exercise area.
Despite the accommodations, which were liberal in that era, prisoners spent most of their time in solitary. Whenever they left their cells, they wore hoods to prevent even minimal interaction with the guards or knowledge of the building’s layout.
Technically, the Walnut Street Jail, also in Philadelphia, came before Eastern State. The modern system, however, owe its roots to Eastern State — more than 300 prisons around the world take after its “radial” floor plan, which resembles a wagon wheel. In fact, virtually all prisons created since have followed either its model, known as the Pennsylvania System, or New York State’s Auburn System.
The group created Eastern State largely as a response to the abysmal conditions at the Walnut Street Jail. Guards threw prisoners — regardless of gender, age, or severity of crime — into filthy pens together, leading to violence and rape. Jailers made little effort to control the inmates and even sold them alcohol. Basic amenities like food, clothing, and water, came at a price too.
The facilities’ conditions deviated from the principles of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who believed in Quaker ideals of rehabilitation and just punishment. A prominent physician named Benjamin Rush, considered the “father of American psychiatry,” also took notice. Drawing on Englishman John Howard’s work, he and a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Ben Franklin, attempted to institute changes at the jail but soon realised that Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system needed a radical overhaul.
While Eastern State housed its last prisoner in 1971 after 142 years of service, more than two centuries later, the group that created Eastern State still exists — renamed the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a non-profit still focused on reforming the US criminal justice system.
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