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Charles Dickens

Prison Reform


In the early 1830s, two main disciplinary systems influenced the field of penitentiaries. Both came from America and were often referred to as the Philadelphia and the Auburn systems. They were named after the famous prisons in Pennsylvania and New York that had popularized them.

Under the Philadelphia, or Separate System, prisoners occupied individual cells day and night. They were sometimes given instructional books or handcraft exercises to do, but mostly they were left to meditate on their crimes and the consequences. Food was pushed into the cell through hatches and the prisoner never saw or spoke with anyone except the officers and a few approved prison visitors. Exercise took place in separate, individual yards.

Under the less strict version of the Separate System, prisoners left their cells for instruction or exercise but had to wear masks or veils to prevent seeing or being seen by fellow prisoners. The idea was that eliminating knowledge of fellow prisoners would reduce corruption upon release back into society. Critics used the term "solitary confinement" to describe the system and labeled it cruel and unusual punishment, especially for those whose sentences were for years or decades.

Under New York's Silent System, prisoners were allowed to work together but under very strict supervision. They were forbidden to speak or otherwise communicate with one another. Ideally, they were to sleep in separate cells but often they continued to sleep in the old dormitories of institutions unwilling to pay to replace the buildings. Wardens were required to be with the prisoners night and day, watching for any infringement of the rules.

The advantage of the Silent System was that it was easier to adopt in existing institutions, although it needed a very large staff to enforce discipline. The Separate System required an expensive building project, but required a much smaller staff to operate it. The merits of the two systems were hotly debated, with one side in favor of reforming offenders versus the other side in favor of deterring crime with severe punishment.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCharles Dickens - Early Life Of Poverty, American Notes, Prison Reform, Final Tour