Solitary or silent?

This week I’m in the middle of my fifth trip in two months, and this time I’ve transported across the country to Philadelphia. If I’m lucky I’ll get a chance to tour Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). If I make the tour, I’ll post pics.

So today’s a good chance to discuss two competing early models of prisons. The first of these, called the solitary or Pennsylvania system, was pioneered at ESP in 1829. As the name suggests, inmates were locked up alone and were visited only by prison staff and clergy. The inmates were supposed to work during the day. It was thought that this system was more humane than the models of incarceration otherwise in use, in which large groups of prisoners shared cells–often leading to violence, victimization, and further criminal behavior. It was also assumed that solitary confinement would give inmates the opportunity to consider the errors of their ways and reform themselves. That’s why these prisons were called penitentiaries.

The competing model was called the silent or Auburn system, after Auburn prison in New York. In these prisons, inmates spent the night in solitary cells. During the day they worked together, but they were not allowed to speak to one another. Corporal punishment (flogging) was widely used. This treatment was intended to dehumanize them and turn inmates into obedient factory workers.

The Auburn system was ultimately more popular. For one thing, inmates kept in solitary confinement for extended periods tended to go crazy. Prison overcrowding—a problem even in the 19th century—soon made single-occupancy cells impossible. And from a practical viewpoint, inmates could achieve more work and more kinds of work when they were in groups. This factor became important when people realized the potential profits from prison labor.

Both the Pennsylvania and Auburn systems eventually fell out of favor, replaced by other models of imprisonment. But if you have a story with a 19th-century prison setting, you might want to research which of these models was in use in your jurisdiction.

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