The Prison System
The history of the American prison system was based partially on the prison system of 18th century England. Whereas the American prison system emphasized punishment as well as rehabilitation and restitution the English system did not. Those offenders incarcerated in the English prison system were comprised of, those awaiting trial, banishment from the community, debtors, or those awaiting execution. The American prison system evolved when William Penn instituted the “Great Law” in 1682. The Great Law was a system that was based on the ideology of humanity and rehabilitation. Under the Great Law the death penalty was used only in cases of premeditated murder. In 1776 after the repeal of the great law Pennsylvania enacted legislation that called for the rehabilitation of offenders through discipline and treatment. Other states followed this reformist example, which ultimately led to the Great Penitentiary Rivalry between New York and Pennsylvania.
The first penitentiary opened in a wing of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail in 1790. It was believed that silence and labor were the way to bring about the rehabilitation of offenders. In the Pennsylvania system inmates worked, slept, and ate alone in their cells to avoid being corrupted by other inmates. The only other contact that the inmates had was with the prison officials or members of the clergy. These prison cells were built back to back facing both outward and inward. After the failure of the Walnut Street Jail due to the excessive cost and overcrowding; two new penitentiaries were opened. In 1826 the Western penitentiary was opened near Pittsburg, and the Eastern Penitentiary near Cherry Hill opened three years later in 1829.
New York’s Newgate Prison was built in 1791 and quickly fell to overcrowding. In 1816 the Auburn prison was built and originally followed the Walnut prison system style. The prison style of solitary confinement was eliminated in 1822...
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