Nov 16, 2020 in Law

Pennsylvania System

Pennsylvania System

Finding the right methods of treating criminals in the prisons is an issue that has been disturbing the society for many years. On the one hand, the main goal is to find the way of influence on their consciousness in order to improve social and moral norms and beliefs. On the other hand, the objective lies in the fact that imprisonment, as punishment for a crime, should be harsh and strict. Pennsylvania System is one of the first approaches to imprisonment that has tried to combine these two goals. It is based on the five principles that promote instructing through the punishment of solitary confinement. They help prisoners not only to understand their faults and to follow the right way in the future, but also show the importance of the society for them.


Firstly, in order to understand the peculiarities of Pennsylvania System, it is necessary to analyze the history of its implementation, and through it point out the reason for its creation. In 1818, Pennsylvania took the radical step of establishing a prison that placed each inmate in a single cell for the duration of his sentence. The new Pennsylvania state prison, called the Western Penitentiary, was characterized by a strange and unusual architectural design. It was built in a semi circle, with the cells positioned along its circumference. Build in such a way, some cells faced the boundary wall and others faced the internal area of the circle (Siegel, Worrall, 2011, p. 260). Each sell measured from 8 to 10 feet. Therefore, they were large enough to serve as a workplace. Moreover, such architectural peculiarities gave the opportunity to keep criminals in solitary confinement. They did not see peers and their only human visitors were prison officials and clergymen (Clear, Cole, Reisig, 2011, p. 46). Thus, the main reason for the creation of such a prison was to remove the sinner from the society and allow him to think over his crime in isolation in order to understand the harmful consequences of it.

However, the isolation contributed by architectural design was not enough to have a positive influence on the criminals consciousness. That is why solitary confinement was complemented by the tightly controlled system of principles. Robert Vaux stated that they were the following,

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Prisoners would not be treated vengefully but should be convinced that through hard and selective forms of suffering they could change their lives. Solitary confinement would prevent further corruption inside prison. In isolation, offenders would reflect on their transgressions and repent. Solitary confinement would be punishment because human are by nature social beings. Solitary confinement would be economical because prisoners would not need long periods of time to repent; therefore, fewer keepers would be needed, and the costs of clothing would be lower (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2011, p. 47).

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According to the first principle, prisoners should be provided with constant instructions and explanations that would show the way their future life will be improved after such system of imprisonment. It means that criminals should clearly understand the reasons and objectives of their staying in prison. Hard treating will not give them an opportunity to realize their faults, but only will make them crueler. Second and third principles state that solitude will give the person an opportunity to think over his sins and drawbacks, and in such a way understand their harmfulness. In addition, it prevents criminals from peers negative influence. Fourth principle points out that isolation should also be regarded as punishment. As criminals have committed the crime against the society, they should be deprived of it. It will give them an opportunity to realize the important role, which the society plays in the life of every human being. The last principle underlines that strict instructions and isolation of the prisoners do not bring benefits to their improvement, but also are cost-effective for the prison itself. It can be proved by the fact that separate cells need less furniture. In addition, criminals are provided with all the necessary conditions to work and to produce some goods in them. Thus, in few words, these principles can be described as solitude is as necessary as labor; labor is as indispensable as solitude (McElwee, 1835, p. 141).

At first, this system seemed to be effective. It allowed the prisoners to reflect on their lives and at the same time to learn the value of discipline and proper work habits. However, it was only in theory. In fact, it made them anxious and exhausted. There were many cases, when prisoners suffered a mental breakdown, because of isolation. In addition, they were not treated in a normal way. Physical punishment was a common method of maintaining discipline (Clear, Cole, Reisig, 2011, p. 47). That is why, it was superseded by the Auburn system, which was cheaper to operate and more financially productive than Pennsylvania system (Roth, 2006, p. 28).

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Nowadays, Pennsylvania system is rarely used. In the second half of the century, the Progressive movement rejected both systems and introduced the Progressive model for prisons, which focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The Progressives believed that criminal behavior was caused by social, economic, and biological factors; therefore, a corrections system should have a goal of treatment, not punishment (Gaines, Miller, 2010, p. 311).

To sum up, Pennsylvania system of correction, introduced in the Western Penitentiary prison in 1818, was based on the five main principles. The main idea of them was the following one: solitude was as necessary as labor; labor was as indispensable as solitude. In addition, they proclaimed firm instructing rather than hard physical punishment. However, in practice, it failed. The criminals suffered from mental diseases because of solitude, and they were treated in a cruel way in order to maintain the discipline. That is why it was superseded by other approaches to correction. However, Pennsylvania system remains one of the first methods of prisoners correction that combine constant influence on the consciousness of criminals with the help of instructions and education and punishment through the solitude.


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