Prison Reforms in American History

Walnut Street Jail 1790

Walnut Street Prison behind old "gaol"

What has been called "the first American penitentiary, if not the first one in the world," was established in Philadelphia, in 1790, in the Walnut Street Jail, a building formerly operated as a city jail. "The cell blocks constructed in the Walnut Street Jail, pursuant to the law of 1790, introduced in permanent fashion the structural pattern of outside cells, with a central corridor, the chief architectural feature of the Pennsylvania system of prison construction. Here, for the first time in penological history, the use of imprisonment through solitary confinement as the usual method of combatting crime, was permanently established. The basic principles of the new system, so it appears from contemporary accounts, were the effort to reform those in the prison, and to segregate them according to age, sex, and the type of the offenses charged against them." (quotes from from the Handbook of Correctional Institution Design and Construction, United States Bureau of Prisons, 1949). The word "penitentiary" came from the Pennsylvania Quakers and their belief in penitence and self-examination as a means to salvation.

Auburn 1821

Inside the Auburn Prison

This was the first of two prisons authorized by the New York law of 1816. The second prison was Sing-Sing authorized in 1824 to replace Newgate in Greenwich Village built in 1796. The emphasis was on individual cell-block architecture to create an environment to rehabilitate and reform, to separate the criminal from all contact with corruption and then teach him moral habits of order and regularity by means of sever discipline. Inmates worked as contract convict labor 10 hours per day, 6 days per week. Alexis de Tocqueville visited Sing-Sing in 1831 and wrote about its system of discipline. The Auburn model influenced the emergence of reform schools and workhouses in the 1820s, such as the New York House of Refuge in 1825 that separated juveniles from the adult prisoners, and the workhouse on Blackwell's Island for vagrants and drunks and misdemeanants. New York City built the Tombs on Centre Street in 1838 to add prison capacity to the old Bridewell jail and the 1814 Bellevue Penitentiary and the 1828 Blackwell's Island Penitentiary (Blackwell's was closed by reform mayor LaGuardia and all inmates moved to the new Rikers Island in 1934).

Eastern State Penitentiary 1829

Eastern State Prison

This was a huge fortress with thick walls at Cherry Hill near Philadelphia emphasizing complete solitary confinement (the "Pennsylvania system") rather than contract labor (the "Auburn system"). New inmates wore hoods when marched to their cells to avoid seeing other prisoners. Regimentation included use of the lockstep and marching in close order single file shuffling with head turned right, practices that continued into the 1930s. No visitors or mail or newspapers were allowed. The design of this prison became the most influential in U. S. history, on such fortresses as the West Virginia Penitentiary.

Elmira Reformatory 1876

Elmira Reformatory

The second wave of prison reform began with the 1870 National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline that led to the founding of the American Correctional Association, known then as the National Prison Association, and to the building of Elmira Reformatory. Zebulon Brockway began an effort to classify and segregate type of prisoners, provide individualized treatment including vocational training, rewards for good behavior, parole, indeterminate sentences. The focus shifted from penitence and punishment to individual treatment. "Beginning in 1878, several educated inmates taught elementary classes six nights a week, and a professor from the Elmira Women's College conducted courses in geography and the natural sciences for advanced students. The next year, six public school teachers and three attorneys were engaged to teach elementary classes and advanced classes were expanded to include geometry, bookkeeping and physiology. A professor from the Michigan State Normal School was recruited as "moral director" to begin courses in ethics and psychology. Lectures in history and literature were added in the early '80's. In 1882, a summer school was started." (quote and picture from History of Elmira)

Brockway's "New Penology" called for the new techniques of probation, parole, and the indeterminate sentence. Several of the principles called for the creation of specialized institutions to care for the young, female, mentally impaired. Progressives were "child savers" who sought to separate juvenile offenders from prison populations. One method was the creation of a juvenile court system, starting in Chicago in 1899 that gave wide discretionary powers to judges. The Illinois State School at St. Charles opened in 1904 as the first juvenile prison. Progressives also sought to save women, and to enlist their participation. Indiana led the way with the Female Prison and Reformatory Institution for Girls and Women in Indianapolis in 1874, the first independent women's prison. Overcrowding was an important reason for the development of separate female prisons. In Massachusetts, Hannah B. Chickering and Ellen C. Johnson led the effort to build a women's prison at Sherborn that opened in 1877. Ellen Johnson became warden in 1884 and improved the facility with a graded system of inmates and developed a farm for labor and a mulberry grove that provided a bucolic setting for Sunday afternoon lectures. Most northern states recognized the need for more prisons due to overcrowding, and 11 new penitentiaries or reformatories were built in the 1870s, and many older prisons were expanded. Southern states, rather than build new prisons, turned to the convict lease system.

Leavenworth 1895


The convict leasing system was one of the great evils that reformers sought to abolish. Under the contract labor system prisoners worked inside prison walls under contract with an outside firm that sold their products on the open market. Under the convict leasing system, private firms paid a fee to the state to house and work prisoners. Private business and labor always opposed this system as unfair competition. In 1887, Congress prohibited the use of federal prisoners for contract labor. State prisons became reluctant to house federal prisoners unless they could profit from their labor. Therefore, it became necessary for Congress to build its own system of federal prisons. The Three Prisons Act of 1891 authorized the first federal penitentiaries. The old army prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, became the first United States penitentiary in 1895, until a new facility was built by inmates in 1906. The second opened in 1902 at Atlanta, Georgia. The third United States penitentiary was located at the old territorial prison on McNeil Island in Puget Sound, Washington. The states of New York and Pennsylvania and New Jersey prohibited the leasing and contract labor systems. Gradually the state-use system replaced other labor systems, allowing convicts to work in prisons but their products could only be sold to the state, not in the public marketplace. This system included production of license plates for automobiles, the construction of public highways, prison farms and factories that produced food and items for internal consumption. In 1927 the first federal prison for women opened in Alderson, West Virginia, then called the Federal Industrial Institution for Women, that was a minimum security campus-like prison with residential cottages named after social reformers, such as Jane Addams and Mary McLeod Bethune. Elsewhere, the camps that housed inmates working on roads became models for minimum-security prisons that emerged in the 1930s. The Connecticut State Farm and Prison for Women at Niantic was remodeled in 1930. In many southern states the roadwork was done by chain gangs that would become a national scandal by the 1930s.

Alcatraz 1933

Alcatraz cell

The Federal Bureau of Prisons was established in 1930 to oversee the 11 federal prisons then in existence. In 1933 Attorney General Homer Cummings created the Federal Bureau of Investigation and acquired Alcatraz from the U.S. Army for a federal prison. "The Great Depression was the root of a severe crime surge during the late 20's and 30's, and brought to light a new era of organized crime. The gangster era was in full swing and the nation was witness to violent crime waves brought on by Prohibition and those driven by desperate need. The nation sat in fear as influential mobsters and sharply dressed public enemies weighed their heavy influence on metropolitan cities and their authorities. Law enforcement agencies were often ill-equipped, and would often cower before better-armed gangs in shoot-outs and public slayings. A public cry swept the nation to take back America's heartland and the birth of a unique detention facility was cast, it was nicknamed Uncle Sam's Devil's Island. Alcatraz was the ideal solution; it could serve the dual purpose of not only condemning public enemies, but would be a visible icon, as a warning to this new brand of criminal. Sanford Bates, the head of the Federal Prisons, and Attorney General Homer Cummings led the project and kept a hand in the design concepts that were finely detailed. One of the nations foremost security experts, Robert Burge, was commissioned to help design a prison that was escape-proof as well as forbidding. The Bureau of Prisons chose James A. Johnston as Alcatraz's new Warden. Johnston was an ideal choice, with his strict ideals and humanistic approach to reform. Johnston came to the position with a broad-based background of business, and over twelve years experience in the California Department of Corrections. James Johnston was appointed as the Warden of San Quentin Prison in 1913, and served a brief appointment at Folsom Prison. Johnston had become notable for the programs he implemented for prisoner reform. He didn't believe in chain gangs but believed in having inmates report to a job where they were respected and rewarded for their efforts. Nicknamed the "Golden Rule Warden" at San Quentin, Johnston was praised in newspapers for the California highways that were graded by prisoners in his road camps. Although inmates were not compensated monetarily, they were rewarded with sentence reductions. Johnston also established several educational programs at San Quentin that proved successful with a good number of inmates. Despite his humane approach to reform, he also carried a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. His rules of conduct were among the most rigid in the correctional system and harsh punishments were delivered to inmates defiant of prison regulations. During his tenure at "Q" Warden Johnston had overseen the executions of several inmates by hangings, and was not unfamiliar with managing the most vicious rogues of society." (quote and picture from The Rigid Silence)

Seagoville 1941


James V. Bennett was Director of the Bureau of Prisons 1937-64. He built the Federal Correctional Institution at Seagoville, Texas, a prison without walls in 1941, based on the "Medical Model" of prison rehabilitation that became widespread in the 1960s, following a period of prison unrest. The Medical Model treated crime as a disease and offered different treatment programs after prisoners were classified by personality types. Federal Prison Industries, today's UNICOR, began in 1934 and became one of Bennett's successful and cost-effective programs. Other prisons that followed Bennett's model was Chino CA in 1941, and the Federal Medical Center at Fort Worth, Texas, built in 1956, is one of six federally run prison medical centers. Bennett was responsible for the Prison Rehabilitation Act of 1965. The "Control Model" was opposite the Medical Model. It was developed by George Beto, director of the Texas state prison system after 1961. It emphasized strict discipline. David Ruiz sued the Texas system in 1972, claimed that the prisons constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. His class action suit was settled in 1980, the longest running prisoners' lawsuit in U.S. history.


revised 3/30/09 by Steve Schoenherr at the University of San Diego

Citation: Schoenherr, Steven E. Prison Reforms in American History. [March 30, 2009]