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Conditions shocking at disease-infested Allegheny prison

Published October 24. 2009 09:00AM

Pennsylvania's prison reform efforts are rooted in the state's early history. To encourage humane treatment of inmates, a group of Christians known as the Society of Friends (or Quakers) established the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787.

The Quakers then considered the main objective of jails and prisons to be reformation. Key elements of their plan included basic education and religious instruction in the Quaker faith. Historians consider the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, which was built in 1790, to be the first U.S. prison that attempted to rehabilitate offenders, rather than simply punish them.

The pattern of discipline and offender treatment practiced at the Walnut Street Jail became known as the Pennsylvania System, which included the use of solitary confinement, periods of silence for meditation, religious study, promoting repentance as a goal and rehabilitative work. The Pennsylvania System was incorporated into the Western Penitentiary which was built in Pittsburgh in 1826 at a cost of $178,000.

Prison reform, however, was slow in coming, evidenced by a news story published in the Tamaqua Courier in September of 1909, on the deplorable conditions at the Allegheny Penitentiary.

The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine described the prison as being much like a fortress. The massive stone building had stone walls three feet thick and huge iron doors so prisoners did not expect to see the light of day once inside.

The prison had been erected on the principle of solitary confinement without labor, but an act in 1829 ordered that it should offer solitary confinement with hard labor.

After early inspections found the "constant confinement in the cells" incompatible with the health of the convicts," the cells were demolished in 1833 and new cell blocks were built. A new prison was again built in 1882 at a cost of over $2 million, which, at the time, made it the most expensive prison ever erected in America.

There were architectural flaws, however. It was damp and unhealthy. The dense fog retained the smoke of nearby factories, often making it too dark for the convicts to leave their cells before noon.

An inspection made by the prisons department to the state attorney general in the fall of 1909 called conditions at the prison "distressing and intolerable."

Attorney General Wade Ellis criticized conditions during a report of his own. He said that more than half of the prison's total population of 1,301 were idle all the time, and more than half were confined two to a cell. He said the cells were unusually small, with the cots taking up most of the eight-foot-long space.

He also reported that more than 300 prisoners suffered from tuberculosis, and 79 cells were occupied by those showing advanced stages of the disease.

"The prison is filled with vermin of all kinds, although the officials are making an effort to eradicate them," Ellis stated. "An unusually large number of the prisoners are of the lowest possible character, mentally and morally."

Meals were served in one general mess and the fare was not at all appetizing.

"Almost universal complaint is made about the quality of the food served, especially the meats," Ellis reported. The prisoners had once staged an open revolt during an inspector's visit.

"One one occasion, the prisoners are reported to have arisen in a body and hurled their food, plates and other articles at one of the inspectors of the prison, and to have called upon him to witness the quality of the food," Ellis said. "Because of the number involved in this outbreak, punishment seems impossible."

Because of the conditions, all 21 of the federal prisoners confined at Western Penitentiary were immediately removed and transferred to Atlanta or Leavenworth.

The shocking conditions led to the eventual removal of Western Penitentiary to a more desirable site. In 1911, a new location was authorized and a tract of 5,000 acres was secured at Rockview in Centre County.

Under the reform concept, increasing numbers of prisons were built with prison labor in mind. States constructed prison factories in new prisons and in rural areas prison farms flourished.

From 1900 to 1970 rehabilitation-oriented prisons provided psychological services, counseling, vocational and technical training, education, and other services aimed at improving inmate self-esteem.

It was the kind of humane advancement that the early Quakers would have eagerly supported.

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