19th Century U.S. Civic Institutions Concerned with Prisoners

face of a prisoner

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Philadelphia Society for alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was competing with similar societies in Boston and New York. Philadelphia, Boston, and New York were the leading cities in the newly independent United States. The Philadelphia Society was founded in 1787, the Prison Discipline Society of Boston was founded in 1825, and the Prison Association of New York, in 1844. The Philadelphia Society thus had the distinction of preceding its U.S. competitors by decades. Nonetheless, struggling in 1847 to raise money to support its journal, The Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy, the Philadelphia Society noted the intensity of the competition and warned of falling behind:

We cannot afford to be outstripped in this contest of good deeds. Philadelphia has presented a bright example as the pioneer in this still overgrown and tangled wilderness. Let not the sister cities,—her eager competitors in all that concerns the flourishing existence of an enlightened commonwealth,—bear off the palm that has so long rested on her brow, in a career that has already secured to her a lasting fame—that of the first and strongest advocate of prison discipline reform.^

Competition among penal reformers in the mid-nineteenth century was centered on how to best suppress prisoners’ communication. The two, internationally famous model regimes for suppressing prisoners’ communication were the separate (Pennsylvania) system and the congregate (Auburn, New York) system. Louis Dwight, a founder of the Prison Discipline Society of Boston, advocated vociferously in favor of the Auburn system. Pennsylvania prison reformers probably sensed in 1847 the balance of deliberative power shifting against them.

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