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Standing at the epicenter of a transatlantic transformation in the practice of punishment, the emergence of penitentiaries altered the penal landscape of the early American Republic. Spreading in two separate waves, first at the turn of the nineteenth century and then during the Jacksonian period, early national penitentiaries helped reshape the theory and practice of punishment. Particularly in the northern states of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, new theories and practices of punishment took center stage. Indeed, the efforts of penal officials and theorists in the northern United States made them the objects of intense scrutiny and imitation by their European counterparts. But despite the revolutionary claims of its early proponents and the long-term effects of their penal strategies, the practical effects of the penitentiary remained limited during the early Republic. In the north, experimental reformative practices were only implemented in larger prisons, while in the southern states the power of slavery meant that penitentiaries were of limited significance.

In the colonial period, prisons and jails had restricted importance in the criminal justice system. Small, often ramshackle affairs, prisons were largely holding areas. Courts and magistrates deployed prisons to hold prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, to detain prisoners awaiting their actual punishments, or to confine debtors or vagrants. Imprisonment for debt was perhaps the most significant form of long-term confinement in colonial jails; rarely did the authorities employ prisons as part of criminal punishment itself. Instead, the vast majority of criminal sanctions in colonial America were corporal, capital, or financial. Nor did officials or the public expect prisons and jails to operate as reformative influences. In fact, critics consistently insisted that jails were sources of infection—both moral and physical. Although not on the scale of London's notorious New-gate or Fleet prisons, colonial jails were the sites of jail fevers and the launching pads for escapes. Jailers survived on fees for services, a system that hardly discouraged efforts to exploit prisoners and the public for personal gain.

Prisons assumed new importance during the late eighteenth century. A combination of factors provided political contexts for a reconsideration of traditional systems of public, capital, and corporal punishments: a perceived rise in crime during the late colonial and Revolutionary eras; the growing conviction among Revolutionary elites that capital and corporal penalties were unsuitable for a Republic; and a heightened sensitivity to the possible abuse of courts and penalties for political purposes. Intellectually, diverse attachments to notions of enlightened reforms and a transatlantic network of reformers (both religious and secular) helped provide the arguments to justify an increased emphasis on imprisonment and reformation. But despite the obvious importance of the search for a republican form of penalty, it is important to recognize that penal reform occurred in both America and Europe. National pride and republican ideology may have encouraged Americans to experiment with prisons—but Americans were only a part of a wider transatlantic reformation. Complicating matters further, southern states joined in the late-eighteenth-century fascination with penitentiaries, but significant experiments were focused largely in the North. Penal practice followed regional distinctiveness.

first generation of reform

Although Massachusetts and other northern states transformed their penal systems (and in the case of Massachusetts engaged in pathbreaking prison reform), it was New York and Pennsylvania that quickly assumed center stage in articulating the ideology and establishing the practice of reformed imprisonment. During the 1790s and the first decade of the nineteenth century, these two states engaged in sustained efforts to transform punishment in the direction of reformative incarceration. First at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Prison and then in New York City's Newgate Prison, prison officials and private reformers aimed to establish a new penal system that placed penitence and reform at its heart.

The new developments could be seen most clearly in Philadelphia's Walnut Street Prison. Built in 1773 under the unreformed system, the jail was used to hold prisoners during the Revolutionary War. But beginning in 1790, Pennsylvania transformed Walnut Street into a state prison dedicated simultaneously to punishing and reforming inmates through a complicated regimen of hard labor, solitude, enforced cleanliness and discipline. Then, in 1794 officials opened a house of solitary cells (known as the "penitentiary house") in the prison yard.

Although in reality Pennsylvanians were following upon a series of English experiments in solitary confinement, Walnut Street became internationally famous as a laboratory of humane penal practice—linked in the transatlantic mind with Quaker opposition to the death penalty and cruelty in punishment. Visitors from across the new nation and across the Atlantic came to sing its praises. Its efforts were copied around the Atlantic world, most directly, perhaps, in New York's Newgate Prison under the direction of Thomas Eddy. In both prisons the early years appeared promising—order was sustained, labor was imposed, officials insisted that prisoners were reformed, and humanity's claims seemed fulfilled.

A new social regime. In these first efforts at reformative incarceration, the emphasis lay on a social transformation of prisons and prisoners. Although new prison buildings were built (the "penitentiary house" at Walnut Street and new state prisons in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia), the overwhelming focus was on creating a new social regimen that would transform the habits and characters of inmates. Reformers such as Eddy in New York and Caleb Lownes in Philadelphia were convinced that criminality was an effect of bad habits—particularly as regarded labor. They were certain that if they imposed disciplined labor combined with regular over-sight and some moral or religious instruction that they could remake inmates and produce productive and disciplined citizens. In their minds the physical plant or architecture of the prison was clearly a secondary consideration to the structure of authority and the social milieu.

Failure. If Newgate and Walnut Street represented the first wave of enlightened penal reform, by the second decade of the nineteenth century both projects were in shambles. Nearly all of the elements of the reformed prison had either collapsed or been undermined through prisoner resistance. The labor system was erratic, discipline was in disarray, silence and solitude were rarely enforced, and disease and death haunted the inmates. A rise in recidivism and a decline in reformation increased the strains on the prison establishments as inmate populations grew without equivalent increases in staffing or resources. Escapes and prison violence increased over time. Inmate riots and arson marked the failure of the first generation of prison reformers.

a second reform effort

The crisis of reformative incarceration led to a dramatic reconstruction of the theory and practice of penitentiaries. In this reconstruction, Pennsylvania and New York again took the lead. In prisons (most famously at Auburn, New York, and Philadelphia) designed and constructed across the 1820s, each state laid out a new vision (and a good deal of state funds) for the proper organization of penitentiaries. These new prisons were bold efforts. Significantly larger than their predecessors, their designs were carefully calibrated for maximum discipline and control of inmates, each built around a philosophy of punitive silence. At the heart of these prisons was the effort to control communication. Prison reformers throughout the early Republic concluded that the first generation of prisons had failed because inmates were able to communicate freely with each other, undermining the authority of prison officials and transforming prisons from "schools of virtue to schools of vice." The reformers of the 1820s, however, placed less faith in the social relations of the prison and more in their architectural styles. The use of architecture to control space lay at the heart of these new prisons.

Congregate versus solitary regimes. Consequently, solitary confinement played a central role at both New York's Auburn Prison and Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary. But from this shared premise the two prison systems diverged dramatically. Eastern State Penitentiary aimed to impose solitary confinement on inmates for the entirety of their confinement: each inmate had a separate, individual cell and exercise yard, labor took place within cells, food was delivered in special drawers, and contact was limited to approved prison officials. At Auburn, by contrast, solitary confinement was imposed only at night. During the day, prisoners labored in a congregate setting more akin to a factory. Silence was enforced not by separation but through the whip, while the invention of the lockstep aimed to ensure that prisoners could not communicate while they traveled from cell to workshop. If Eastern State sought to individualize in the aim of repentance, Auburn sought to discipline in the interests of production.

The debate over congregate versus solitary regimes would shape the course of prisons throughout the nineteenth century. In the United States, the congregate system quickly became the dominant prison form—it would prove more economical and productive. Interestingly, Europeans were more drawn to the solitary system developed in Philadelphia. Indeed, from the 1820s onward, leading European reformers such as William Crawford and Alexis de Tocqueville came to America to examine these new penitential systems. In the end, despite dissenters like Charles Dickens, they argued that the solitary system was more humane. The penitential imagination trumped the fiscal imagination in Britain and the Continent.

Penitentiaries transformed systems of punishment on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, their impact remained uneven. Efforts to turn prisons into penitentiaries could only occur in the largest institutions; in most local jails or secondary prisons the new penitential structures were absent. And in the United States, their importance was largely limited to the North. It is true that southern states—with the notable exceptions of the Carolinas—also constructed new penitentiaries in this period. But their importance and their populations remained constrained by the existence of slavery. Slaves continued to be punished largely on plantations, and public punishments remained ever present in the southern states. Penitentiaries were the companions of new liberal, capitalist orders. They would have to wait till after the Civil War for their day in the South.

See alsoCapital Punishment; Corporal Punishment; Crime and Punishment; Reform, Social .


Ayers, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Hirsch, Adam Jay. The Rise of the Penitentiary: Prisons and Punishment in Early America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

McGowen, Randall. "The Well-Ordered Prison: England, 1780–1865." In The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Edited by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Meranze, Michael. Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.

Michael Meranze