Richard Vaux’s Enduring Advocacy of the Pennsylvania System

face of a prisoner

The Pennsylvania System of separate confinement kept prisoners confined in separate cells at all times to control strictly prisoners’ communication. After 1866, only Pennsylvania state prisons formally continued to impose this system of prison discipline. Nonetheless, Pennsylvania officials continued to advocate the Pennsylvania System into the 1890s.^

Richard Vaux was a leading prison official in Pennsylvania. Vaux was the son of eminent Philadelphia philanthropist and public servant Roberts Vaux. Richard Vaux served as an inspector of the Eastern State Penitentiary near Philadelphia from 1842 to 1895.^ He was president of Eastern State Penitentiary’s Board of Inspectors for 43 years. In a paper read before the American Philosophical Society in 1884, Vaux declared:

The Pennsylvania prison system rests its claim for recognition and adoption on the suggestions of philosophy, and the teaching of experience, confirmed by half a century of trial. It must teach, and wait.^

In the early 1830s, the Pennsylvania prison system was highly regarded world-wide for its complete suppression of prisoners’ communication. By 1884, the Pennsylvania prison system was no longer practically in operation anywhere in the U.S., not even in Pennsylvania. As more than one prisoner became confined to a cell in Eastern State Penitentiary from 1866 on, officials associated with it began to refer to its system as “the individual treatment system” rather than “separate method of confinement with labor and moral instruction.”^ Vaux and other Pennsylvania elite refused to recognize the failure of their famous system of prison discipline.

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