Pennsylvania System | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Corrections

The Pennsylvania System was a system of prison discipline characterized by solitary confinement, which was believed to foster penitence, which arose in the late 18th century.

The Pennsylvania System was a revolutionary system of prison discipline that emerged in the late 18th century. It was characterized by a focus on solitary confinement, which was believed to foster penitence and reform in inmates. The system was developed by the Quakers in Pennsylvania, who sought to create a more humane and effective approach to punishment and rehabilitation.

The Pennsylvania System was based on the idea that inmates could be reformed through solitude and reflection. In this system, inmates were kept in individual cells for 23 hours a day, with only one hour for exercise and fresh air. They were not allowed to speak to other inmates and were required to wear hoods or masks whenever they were outside of their cells. The idea behind this strict regimen was to remove all distractions and stimuli, allowing inmates to focus on their own thoughts and actions.

The philosophy behind the Pennsylvania System was deeply rooted in the Quaker belief in the importance of introspection and reflection. The Quakers believed that by isolating inmates from the distractions of the outside world, they could be forced to confront their own misdeeds and seek penitence. The hope was that by fostering a sense of penitence, inmates could be reformed and eventually reintegrated into society.

The Pennsylvania System was seen as a revolutionary approach to prison discipline, and it quickly gained popularity throughout the United States and Europe. However, the system was not without its critics. Many argued that the strict regimen of solitary confinement was too harsh and inhumane and that it could lead to mental illness and other psychological problems in inmates.

Evolution of the Pennsylvania System

Over time, the Pennsylvania System was modified and replaced by other approaches to prison discipline. In the late 19th century, the Auburn System was developed, which emphasized a more structured and disciplined approach to prison life. In this system, inmates were housed in large dormitories and worked together in silence during the day but were allowed to talk and socialize during meal times and leisure hours. This approach was seen as a more humane and effective way of managing inmates, and it became the dominant approach to prison discipline in the United States.

Despite its shortcomings, the Pennsylvania System remains an important chapter in the history of prison discipline. Its emphasis on penitence and reflection was a radical departure from earlier approaches to punishment, which focused primarily on deterrence and retribution. Although other approaches ultimately replaced the system, it helped to lay the groundwork for more humane and effective approaches to prison discipline in the future.

The Emphasis of the Pennsylvania System

The Pennsylvania System’s emphasis on solitude, labor, and moral reflection was a unique approach to corrections that had a long-lasting impact on the criminal justice system.

Above all, it was driven by the idea that criminals could be reformed through solitude and reflection. This philosophical foundation led to three key characteristics of its approach.

1.  Solitary Confinement

Prisoners were kept in individual cells with minimal contact with other inmates and staff. The idea behind this was to prevent criminal contamination or the learning of further criminal behavior from other inmates.

2.  Labor

Prisoners were expected to engage in productive work, but this work was done in solitude. The intent was to foster habits of industry and self-discipline that could be useful after release.

3.  Religious Instruction and Reflection

The authorities believed that moral education was key to reform. They provided inmates with Bibles and encouraged them to spend their solitude in penitence and prayer.

Drawbacks of the Pennsylvania System

However, this system had its drawbacks. The strict solitary confinement was seen by many as excessively harsh, leading to mental health issues among prisoners. Additionally, the cost of maintaining separate cells for each prisoner was high. Despite these concerns, the Pennsylvania System had a significant influence on correctional practices and prison designs during the 19th century.

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Last Modified: 07/21/2023

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