Incarceration & the Separate System

On June 9, 1729, the Lancaster County magistrates, meeting for the first time at Postlethwaite’s Tavern, ordered construction of a jail. With the county having been created to reign in “thieves, vagabonds, and ill people,” it now needed a place to put them. In the 18th century, jails were places to hold those accused of crimes until their trial and sentencing, which usually resulted in physical punishments like time in the stocks, whippings, or executions. They were attempts to punish criminals and deter future crimes by example. 

Pennsylvania Quakers, however, sought a method of discipline that would reform those who had committed crimes rather than seeking retribution through physical suffering. They proposed the replacement of jails and corporal punishment with imprisonment in a penitentiary, a place designed for those convicted of crimes to become penitent and to express remorse for what they had done. 

This idea first took physical form at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which opened in 1829. Architect John Haviland designed the facility in a radial design, so that a prison guard stationed in the middle of the building could see down each hallway by simply turning around. Each hallway was then lined with single cells meant to house one inmate each. Each cell, in turn, had a doorway that opened onto a private yard. Inmates would spend nearly all of their time alone, with no contact with other prisoners and little contact with any staff. The theory was that extreme solitary confinement like this would facilitate the desired penitence by giving the incarcerated person time alone with themselves, their thoughts, and the piecework labor they could complete in their cells. Though there was debate over the role of work in reforming criminals, it became a key feature of the system because of its potential to support rehabilitation and contribute to a self-sustaining institution that did not drain taxpayer resources. In addition, reformers hoped that separation would deter future crime by preventing convicts from working together to devise new criminal plans once they returned home.  

Americans called this the Separate System. However, it was also known as the Pennsylvania System because it originated here, became the state’s official system, and lasted longer in Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the United States. Besides Pennsylvania, only New Jersey and Rhode Island adopted the system for a sustained period of time. Other states experimented with it, but most of these experiments didn’t last long. New York tried the system, but quickly abandoned it in favor of the Auburn System, named for Auburn Prison in upstate New York. The Auburn system also relied on solitary confinement to punish criminals, but it allowed them to congregate for meals and labor, though inmates were required to stay silent even while they were together.

In the 1830s, it became clear that Lancaster County needed a new facility for incarceration. Though most citizens agreed a new facility was needed, there was not a universal consensus as to what kind to build. Some Lancastrians advocated for a new jail, closer to the size of that on Prince Street, instead of a massive, expensive new site. Many objected to the cost. However, since so many of Lancaster’s neighbors had already chosen Haviland to design their prisons–Dauphin County opened one in 1841 and Berks County another  in 1847–Lancaster County followed suit. On September 12, 1851 the first prisoners arrived on King Street, and “a new era was begun in the treatment of criminals, and the punishment of offenders in Lancaster County, which” the Board of Inspectors explained, “the Inspectors confidently believe will do honor to the humanity of the County.”

The downfall of the Separate System was multifold. Because it required single cells for each individual inmate, prisons based on the Separate System were expensive to construct. The hope was that inmates’ labor would cover the cost of operations and reduce the cost to taxpayers, but this was not the case. In addition, higher rates of incarceration in the decades after the Civil War led to overcrowding, which meant that more than one person was staying in a given cell, undermining the mechanism through which this system was meant to induce penitence and reform criminals. Questions also arose about whether prison and punishment were an effective way to approach crimes like drunkenness and vagrancy or conditions like poverty and mental illness. 

The same questions arose in Lancaster as arose throughout Pennsylvania and the nation. There was an attempt to build a new state prison in nearby Mount Gretna in the 1930s, but no new prison construction of any kind took place here for most of the 20th century. With the rapid increase of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s, Lancaster, like many cities and counties, expanded its facilities, but the political will to actually replace the 170-year old prison did not emerge until recently. Today, we still face decisions much like those faced by reformers in the first half of the 19th century. What is the purpose of punishment for a crime? What is the purpose of a prison?