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Prisons: History

The Pennsylvania System

Unlike Auburn or Sing Sing, Pennsylvania's Eastern Penitentiary (1829) was intended to keep convicts separate even as they worked, in order to prevent any earthly contamination or distraction that might impede their repentance—hence the term penitentiary. Located on Cherry Hill, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Eastern represented one of the most imposing and expensive architectural achievements in the United States to date, and it contained innovations such as running water and flush toilets in all the cells.

Although Beaumont and Tocqueville found it "incontestable that this perfect isolation secures the prisoner from all fatal contamination," they favored the more cost-effective Auburn plan, which seemed more likely to enable states to profit from convict labor.

Francis Lieber—the Prussian immigrant scholar who translated Beaumont and Tocqueville's work into English—hailed America's new penitentiary system as "monuments of a charitable disposition of the honest members of society toward their fallen and unfortunate brethren." Lieber coined the term penology to describe "that branch of criminal science which occupies itself . . . with the punishment of the criminal not with the definition of crime, the subject of accountability and the proving of the crime, which belongs to criminal law and the penal process."

Another prominent foreign visitor to Eastern Penitentiary was much more critical of the uncompromising solitary-confinement approach. After touring the institution in 1842, Charles Dickens, the English novelist, concluded in his American Notes (1842) that the Pennsylvania plan was "cruel and wrong," saying he found "this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms