If Fox’s new TV series “Alcatraz” has piqued your curiosity about prisons in your ancestors’ day, penitentiaries’ real history may surprise you. Until the mid-18th century, dungeons, gaols and other places of incarceration weren’t built primarily for punishing violent offenders. In the United States until the 1830s and England as late as 1869, debtors were sent to prison—where, ironically, they had to pay for their keep. As little as 60 cents’ worth of debt could mean imprisonment. England’s political detainees were locked in the Tower of London or Pontefract Castle.
Those we’d consider criminals, however, were jailed only until they could be deported to penal colonies such as America, Australia or France’s Devil’s Island. Or they would be held pending corporal or capital punishment. In the 1500s and 1600s, lawbreakers were shamed and made into examples in public events: whipping, branding, dunking, confinement to the stocks. Execution was the punishment for many crimes, not just murder, reducing the need for cells.
England’s loss of the American colonies eliminated one place to ship criminals, though it continued exiling convicts to Australia until 1868. It also ran floating jails called prison hulks—decommissioned, permanently anchored ships. Though ghastly conditions onboard eventually ended this practice, the hulks demonstrated that imprisonment, coupled with hard labor, was a viable punishment.
Reformers argued, as Henry Fielding put it in 1776, “It is necessary to find an intermediate penalty, combining correction of the body and correction of the mind.” A year later, John Howard, “father of the modern penitentiary,” published a breakthrough book, The State of Prisons in England and Wales. That state was appalling: In England as well as in America, inmates of all offenses and ages, male and female, might be crowded together in a single cell. Jailers charged fees for everything from food and clothing to locking or unlocking cell doors and leg irons. (Many also operated bars: In Philadelphia’s Walnut Street prison, the jailer sold his charges 20 gallons of liquor daily.) Not until 1799 did England’s Penitentiary Act call for facilities housing one inmate per cell.
Another reformer, English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, launched a one-man crusade for his idea of how those penitentiaries should be built. His “Panopticon” design envisioned a circular prison with a central “inspection house” from which guards could watch every inmate in every cell: “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” Although England’s new National Penitentiary, opened in 1816, was built in the spot Bentham planned his Panopticon, it didn’t exactly follow his design.
Jonas Hanway led a reform movement between 1835 and 1850 calling for the “separate system.” The system was designed to encourage a convict to “commune with his conscience,” but in practice at England’s Pentonville prison, opened in 1842, it was more like solitary confinement.
In America, the separate system came to be known as the Pennsylvania System, after reformers of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Eastern State Penitentiary, constructed in Philadelphia beginning in 1822, would be the laboratory for the system—and one of the young nation’s largest public-works projects to date. As the society described the plan, “Each prisoner was to be provided with a cell from which [he] would rarely leave and each cell had to be large enough to be a workplace and have attached an individual exercise yard.” Inmates enjoyed the latest modern conveniences, including central heating (before the US Capitol), flush toilets (long before the White House) and the nation’s first shower baths.
Not everything about Eastern State was so benign. Built on a belief in penance (hence “penitentiary”), each concrete cell had a single glass skylight, dubbed the “Eye of God.” Insufficiently penitent inmates suffered such tortures as being doused in freezing water during winter, having their tongues chained to their wrists, and being confined in a lightless pit under cellblock 14 called “the Hole.”
The alternative to the Pennsylvania System was the Silent or Auburn System, named for New York State’s Auburn Prison. Inmates slept in individual cells, as small as 2×6 feet, but worked in communal shops during the day while adhering to a rule of silence enforced by whippings. This system was adopted at New York’s Sing Sing prison, opened in 1826 under former Auburn warden Elam Lynds. (“Sing Sing” derived from the Indian words sinck sinck meaning “stone upon stone.”) Sing Sing was considered a model facility, as its silent workshops actually made a profit.
Other ideas to make prisoners profitable were pioneered in Georgia, which during the Civil War had simply pardoned any convict who would fight for the Confederacy. As prisons filled up again, Georgia adopted the convict lease system, renting out inmates for about $10 a year to mines, turpentine factories and ironworks. After the legislature banned the system in 1897, the state turned to chain gangs. By 1929, Georgia had 140 prison camps housing convict laborers, who were shuttled to work sites—and sometimes spent the night—in rolling cages. Chain gangs became infamous after a book by escapee Robert E. Burns and a 1932 movie adaptation, I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang.
America’s most infamous prison, depicted in several films, was Alcatraz. Originally a Civil War military fortification in San Francisco Bay, “the Rock” became the Army’s first long-term prison. In 1934, Alcatraz was turned over to the Justice Department for a federal penitentiary—the forerunner of today’s “supermax” prisons. Already ringed by frigid water, Alcatraz was rebuilt by security expert Robert Burge to be escape-proof. Gun galleries overlooked the cellblocks. Tear-gas canisters were installed in the cafeteria ceiling. Contact with the outside world was strictly limited—no newspapers, radios or uncensored mail. Alcatraz had its own “hole,” plus an even more feared “strip cell” in which inmates were confined in the dark without clothes or toilet facilities, only a hole in the floor.
Al Capone, one of the “incorrigible” inmates transferred to Alcatraz from other federal lockups, found he couldn’t flaunt the rules as he had elsewhere. “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked,” Capone told the warden.
- California’s first prison was a ship, the 268-ton Waban, anchored in San Francisco Bay.
- Alcatraz’s severe rules and rigid silence drove some inmates insane. Bank robber Rufe Persful chopped off his own fingers with a hatchet.
- In 1924, Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot sentenced a “cat-murdering dog” to Eastern State Penitentiary. Pep the dog, which had killed a cat belonging to Pinchot’s wife, was inmate number C2559.
- England’s Jeremy Bentham proposed three stages of prisons, the worst being the “Black Prison”: Two skeletons next to an iron door would remind inmates there was no escape.
1829 | Eastern State Penitentiary opens in Philadelphia
1852 | San Quentin opens with 68 inmates
1884 | New York City first uses Rikers Island as a jail farm
1934 | Alcatraz opens
1951 | Devil’s Island closes
1962 | The Birdman of Alcatraz depicts Robert Stroud, who spent six years in solitary confinement
1963 | Alcatraz closes
1971 | Eastern State Penitentiary, a National Historic Landmark, closes