William Crawford Examines the Penitentiaries of the United States

At a time when scientific observation was king and the British Empire was looking for penal reform, Prison Inspector William Crawford, through his writings and reform advocacy, would be responsible for disseminating the model penitentiary structures of silence and separation throughout Britain as well as France, Prussia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Separate Cell System at Pentonville

Born in London 1788, Crawford pursued a mercantile education in his early years. In 1804, he started his lifelong work as a public servant beginning at the London Naval Transport Office, which was responsible for moving supplies for the military. After eleven years there, Crawford became a member of the Committee of the British and Foreign School Society and started to cultivate an interest in the reform of penal laws. In 1818, he became involved with the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders and received a position at the London Prison Discipline Society editing annual reports as their secretary. (i) During his time there, his curiosity and subsequent exploration into the matter of penal reform grew finally prompting a request for the studying of the state penitentiaries in the United States.

Crawford’s request would see fruition. An annual report in 1827 announced, “Mr. Crawford . . . will soon visit the United States on an official inquiry into the state of prisons and crimes. This is an item of intelligence of the greatest interest to us; because great good we believe will result to [the British Empire and the United States] from this visit.” (ii) Around this same time in the early nineteenth-century diplomats like Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont from France were also being sent to analyze American prisons. It was typical in the late 1820s and 1830s for West European nations to send observers to study the success and failures of American prison structures. Structures “new and still of an experimental nature” were in operation in America like the “separate system” at Eastern Penitentiary and the “silent system” at Auburn Penitentiary, which provided a great deal of interest for countries wishing to maximize the efficiency of their own prisons. (iii) With prisons constantly expanding to fit the growing number of convicts due to the rise of population in major cities, countries wanted to find the best ways for punishing and holding criminals. By sending diplomats to examine the American prisons, they hoped to gain general knowledge and insights that could better equip them to design future institutions.

During the early 1800s, scientific knowledge was becoming increasingly important and valued. When something could be observed first-hand and made quantifiable with careful documentation, it gained a higher level of credibility. So for Britain to send Crawford to the United States to examine the prisons first-hand, they truly believed a “great good” would come from it. (iv) They saw his efforts as highly commendable and notably worthwhile to the improvement of their prisons at home.

It was thus, in 1833, that William Crawford left for America and penned his subsequent findings in a report entitled Report of William Crawford, Esq., On the Penitentiaries of the United States published August 11, 1834 by order of the House of Commons.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Cover of Crawford’s Report

Crawford’s initial idea for the report was to simply give an assessment of all the State Penitentiaries in the United States. (He would exclude Georgia and Illinois as the former had been just recently re-established at the time of his visit, which affected the accuracy of any findings and the latter did not have any convicts for him to examine.) This would be supplemented with appropriate background information including a description of the penal laws of all the states, a delineation of the differences in British and American punishment, and a brief overview of the evolution of British prisons in the past century for later comparison.

Most of this background information serves to give context for the perceived British audience who would assumedly not know the specifics of the American penal codes and practices. The overview remains straightforward with factual statements: “The criminal law is administered by justices of the peace, circuit judges, and the superior courts.” (v) But Crawford does have a few opinionated claims on pardons and how they undermine punishment: “Whenever an offender hears of a pardon being granted for any delinquency which bears but a distant resemblance to his own, although in fifty other such cases the full punishment may be carried into effect, he immediately regards the circumstance not merely as another added to the many chances of escape on which he has relied, but as that resource which, on the failure of all others, will extricate him from his difficulties.” (vi) This is an early instance in the report of Crawford deeply focusing on the psyche of the criminal in relation to the structures and rules of the prison system. In this comment, Crawford demonstrates the necessity of analyzing crime outside of the prison. The background information he gives reminds that the prison does not exist in a closed vacuum, but rather must be looked at in the context of the whole system to which a criminal is subjected. Crawford finds it only appropriate after this information given and analyzed to begin the discussion on the specifics of the penitentiaries.

The final copy of his report did include all these elements, but Crawford downgraded most of his State Penitentiary findings to an appendix. He would however keep his reports on the jail in Walnut-Street, Eastern Penitentiary, Auburn Penitentiary, and Sing Sing Prison in the primary body of his work to give evidence and support for his ideas on future British penal reform. He found the other penitentiaries lacked any information worth using writing: “With the exception, however, of these penitentiaries [listed before], there is nothing valuable in the discipline of the prisons in America.” (vii) 

Figure 3.

Figure 3. Appendix of Crawford’s Report

After providing background information, Crawford opens his close examination to the penitentiaries with a deviation into an unfavorable example. He reports, “I have visited many miserable places of confinement, but seldom, if ever, witnessed such a combination of wretchedness and depravity as it to be found in some of the county gaols and town prisons of the United States.” (viii) 


Figure 4. Walnut-Street Jail

Choosing the jail at Walnut-Street, Crawford speaks to the failures that can come from the layout of the convict’s cells. While the cells were separate–a system that Crawford will wholeheartedly support later, the cells were “badly ventilated and so defectively arranged that the convicts in the adjoining cells could communicate with ease.” (ix) Because Crawford was conducting direct observation, he was able to understand the effectiveness of the cells in actual use. Looking at prison plans, Crawford would support the separation of the cells, but witnessing them first hand in their specific layout revealed the failures.

Additionally, Crawford found that Walnut-Street would make free use of the pardoning power because of overcrowding. (x) As suggested earlier, Crawford finds extreme fault in pardoning as it does nothing for the reform of the prisoner. These themes of reforming the convict will become increasingly important as Crawford continues his reports at the other penitentiaries.

Figure 5.

Figure 5. Separated Cells at Eastern Penitentiary

Next, Crawford moves to present his account of Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He spends good amount of time describing the prison–its location, proximity to the city, its size, the material in its walls, and most importantly, its surveillance. Due to the radiating nature of the cells with a central headquarter, all convicts may “at all times be thus inspected without his knowledge”–a fact Crawford finds effective in reform as well as in expenditure of funds. (xi)

Crawford however spends the majority of his Eastern Penitentiary report describing the effectiveness of their version of the separate cell and solitary confinement. First, Crawford describes the cell: “Heated air is conducted by flues from stoves under the corridors. In the arched ceiling of each cell is a window for the admission of light.” (xii) In comparison to the prison at Walnut-Street, Crawford finds these to be habitable conditions for a convict. By including detailed accounts of cells he finds appropriate and inappropriate, he asserts the importance of ensuring that convicts first have a good place to live so they can then seek mental reform in solitude. Crawford views having survival as a convict’s number one concern subverting the possibility for reform.

Crawford spends the remainder of the Eastern Penitentiary report primarily praising their system of solitude. Beginning at their arrival, the convict is blindfolded. “On arriving in his cell the hood is removed, and he is left alone . . . It is not until solitude appears to have effectually subdued him that employment of any kind is introduced into his cell.” (xiii) Crawford, speaking of the convict like a scientist would of a caged animal, examines the effect of this specific type of prison experimentation. Crawford finds that this complete isolation is the only option. At other prisoners that do not have complete isolations, “prisoners thus debarred from speaking [will] have inevitably recourse to other modes of communication.” (xiv) It is the certainty and completeness of the separation that Crawford finds most effective at Eastern Penitentiary.

“Day after day,” Crawford reports, “with no companions but his thoughts the convict is compelled to reflect and listen to the reproofs of conscience.” (15) When solitude is provided, Crawford believes in the power of the mind to guide in the reformation of the convict. He critiques the prison however for not aiding in this reformation as much as they could. Crawford praises Christianity as the vessel to which the convict can reach salvation. He reports, “The mind becomes open to the best impressions and prepared for the reception of those truths and consolations which Christianity can alone impart.” (xvi) He believes that greater reform could come from religions being a requirement at the prison.

Figure 6.

Figure 6. Before and After Chart of Convict’s Health

Finally, in the spirit of scientific documentation, Crawford also includes a plethora of charts delineating the deaths, daily rations, trades, etc. at the prison which are continued in the appendix report of Eastern Penitentiary. Here, he also includes a number of cell and prison plans, which are befitting for his audience who was hoping to possibly implement versions of these prisons.

Figure 7.

Figure 7. Diagram of Eastern Penitentiary

Like a doctor proclaiming a patient well, Crawford makes his assessment. His final conclusions are positive saying that “upon careful review,” he has “no hesitation in declaring [his] conviction that its discipline is a safe and efficacious mode of prison management.” (xvii)

Moving to New York, Crawford next examined the silent system in operation at Auburn Penitentiary. He begins his report just as he did Eastern Penitentiary writing of the details of the prison and the quality of the cells–“well adapted for the admission of air, light, and warmth.” (xviii) 

Figure 8.

Figure 8. Auburn Penitentiary

He finds this all favorable and begins to talk of the daily life of a convict in minute detail. As the system is not one of solitude like at Eastern Penitentiary, the convicts are moved about in order around the prison. Crawford carefully observes how silence is upheld. Convicts are prohibited from speaking with each other and are required to do their labor with “downcast eyes.” (ixx) Failure to cooperate results in certain and immediate flogging by the overseer. Even at night, there is complete silence with turnkeys wearing moccasins to move silently along the galleries. Crawford finds this all well and good, but he critiques the institution saying that it is “greatly overrated” as “the prisoners do hold intercourse by signs and whispers . . . [contributing] to destroy that feeling of loneliness which is the greatest of all moral punishments.” (xx) Through a distilling of the exact value he finds in silence, Crawford reveals his true opinions on what is most effective for prisoners–that it is most importantly the mentality and the morals of the prisoner that must be targeted and attacked.

The mental state argument is furthered by the way he observes the way punishment is implemented at Auburn. He reports that the convicts who have been “governed by the terror of the whip” feel feelings of “degradation and revenge.” (xxi) After all the talk of reform through interrupted solitude, revenge would be the farthest goal in Crawford’s mind.

Figure 9.

Figure 9. Punishing a Convict

As before, Crawford also makes a point to critique the vague presence of religion in the prison. After seeing one overworked chaplain with 680 convicts under his charge, Crawford asks, “Is it reasonable to suppose that services thus restricted can make any deep impression upon hardened characters such as are the inmates at this prison?” (xxii) Crawford here makes a clear assertion into what he thinks is best for the mental reform of the prisoner–a matter that the prison does not seem that intent on addressing.

He concludes with a comparison of Auburn and Eastern Penitentiary describing Auburn as of a physical character and Eastern as of a moral character. “The whip inflicts immediate pain,” he writes. “But solitude inspires permanent terror.” (xxiii) Fully inserting his opinion, Crawford increasingly makes less matter of fact claims and instead asserts his ideas on the importance of working in a cerebral way with the convicts.

Figure 10.

Figure 10. Sing Sing Prison

Finally, Crawford briefly reports on his examinations at Sing Sing continuing his argument against the extreme physical fear that he saw at Auburn Penitentiary. In his report, he writes, “It is impossible not to believe that the power thus arbitrarily invested in the hands of the under keepers at Sing Sing is at times greatly abused, and that system of extreme and unjustifiable severity prevails throughout this prison.” (xxiv) He critiques this abuse of power as creating a place of unjustifiable fear rather than a place of personal, internal reflection. By pointing out the radical terror, he gives recommendation to his readers against what a hostile and ineffective prison environment is.

He also adds a note on the existence of religion at the institution saying that there is not enough time given in the time between chaplain and prisoner rendering “the religious instruction communicated scarcely more than nominal.” (xxv) Per his many related observations, religion as reform in the prison environment has proved extremely important in Crawford’s eyes.

After his detailed reports on his star penitentiaries, Crawford compiles an orderly list of fifteen suggestions for easy consumption. He provides a disclaimer saying, “Although some parts of their discipline are most objectionable, and others altogether inapplicable to the circumstances of this country, yet an examination of the prisons to which I allude cannot fail to give rise to many useful suggestions on various points of deep interest.” His suggestions follow predictable paths from his comments made in the reports asking that every prisoner have a separate sleeping cell, that silence be rigidly maintained, that there be attention to the character and ability of the subordinate prison officers, and that there be a “more efficient system than at present to prevail of communicating religious instruction.” (xxvi)

Figure 11.

Figure 11. Chaplain Visits Prisoner

Crawford’s 1834 report pushing for a silent and separate system originally drew some pushback from some like Lord Mayor of London Sir Peter Laurie who urged the merits of the silent system and the erroneousness of the separate system finding it to be too dangerous to the minds of the convicts. (xxvii) But Crawford would respond that with the hand of religion, this would prove to be safe and reformative.  In 1836, Lord Russell would aid Crawford’s efforts and write to the Mayor of London that “separation appears to be in all such prisons most desirable but in a metropolitan prison absolutely essential.” (xxviii)

After becoming the Prison Inspector of London in 1835, Crawford increasingly received support and praise for his writings making him a knowledgeable force amongst the European penal reformers. Additionally, much of his writing would prove to be effective in inspiring reform. The 1839 Prisons Act prepared by Crawford “effectively sanctioned the enforcement of the separate system by order of the Home Office.”  Under this act, there was report reading: “The general demeanour of the prisoners has very sensibly improved . . . unequivocal marks of a stronger moral feeling have shown themselves in many instances and the religious duties of the convicts have been attended to with greater reverence and more beneficial effects.” (ixxx) After 1840, Crawford’s writings would continue to have widespread influence so much so that all fifty-four new English prisons like Pentonville and Reading were built under the separate system as well as prisons in France, Prussia, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Holland. (xxx)

-Isabella St. Ivany

Works Cited

(i) W. J. Forsythe, “The Beginnings of the Separate System of Imprisonment 1835-1840,” Social Policy & Administration 13, No. 2 (SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost, 1979), 105.

(ii) Prison Discipline Society, Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Volumes 1-8. (Boston: T. R. Marvin, 1827).

(iii) Ernest Teagarden, “A Victorian Prison Experiment,” Journal of Social History 2, no. 4 (1969), 359.

(iv) Prison Discipline Society, Annual Report of the Board of Managers of the Prison Discipline Volumes 1-8 (Boston: T. R. Marvin, 1827).

(v) William Crawford, W. Report of William Crawford, Esq., On the Penitentiaries of the United States (London, 1839), 5.

(vi) Ibid, 7.

(vii) Ibid, 50.

(viii) Ibid, 3.

(ix) Ibid, 8.

(x) Ibid.

(xi) Ibid, 10.

(xii) Ibid.

(xiii) Ibid.

(xiv) Ibid, 11.

(xv) Ibid, 12.

(xvi) Ibid.

(xvii) Ibid, 14.

(xviii) Ibid, 16.

(ixx) Ibid, 17.

(xx) Ibid, 19.

(xxi) Ibid.

(xxii) Ibid, 18.

(xxiii) Ibid, 19.

(xxiv) Ibid, 20.

(xxv) Ibid.

(xxvi) Ibid, 38.

(xxvii) W. J. Forsythe, “The Beginnings of the Separate System of Imprisonment 1835-1840,” Social Policy & Administration 13, No. 2 (SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost, 1979), 107.

(xxviii) Ibid.

(ixxx) Ibid, 110.

(xxx) Mitchel P. Roth, Prisons and Prison Systems: A Global Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006).


Figure 1: “Separate Cell in Pentonville Prison.” Digital image. Prison Voices: Crime, Conviction, and Confession C. 1700-1900. May 14, 2015. http://www.prisonvoices.org/?p=2664.

Figure 2: Cover from William Crawford’s Report of William Crawford, Esq., On the Penitentiaries of the United States. London, 1839.

Figure 3: Appendix from William Crawford’s Report of William Crawford, Esq., On the Penitentiaries of the United States. London, 1839.

Figure 4: A Rendering of the Walnut Street Jail. 1973. Temple University, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Philadelphia.

Figure 5: Higgins, Charles T. Eastern State Penitentiary Cellblock. 1975. George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia.

Figure 6: William Crawford. Report of William Crawford, Esq., On the Penitentiaries of the United States. London, 1839.

Figure 7: William Crawford. Report of William Crawford, Esq., On the Penitentiaries of the United States. London, 1839.

Figure 8: Exterior View of Auburn Prison. 1880. New York State Archives, Education Dept. Division of Visual Instruction, New York.

Figure 9: Image from “Torture.” Torture. http://www.brianpavlac.org/torture/trtmethod.html.

Figure 10: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sing Sing. [View.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5e72-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 11: Cover from Graber, Jennifer. The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons & Religion in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.