Architectural Trends in the Early American Penal System


Architectural reform in the American penal system began in this 1780s in Philadelphia and can be traced across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Two overarching trends, the Pennsylvania System and the Auburn System, connect most of the major penitentiaries constructed between the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the United States. Architectural reforms in the penal system in Pennsylvania in 1786 declared that punishment of prisoners was to be public. By 1822 society preferred to have prisoner life hidden from the public eye, and penitentiaries were designed to reflect this desire. The Newgate Penitentiary in New York, opened in 1796, represents a facility architecturally influenced by a society torn between fear of the criminal element and the desire to uphold humanitarian practices. The first penal structure that resembled a penitentiary was the Walnut Street Prison in Pennsylvania, built in 1773.


Walnut Street Prison


Figure 1. The Walnut Street Jail

The penitentiary system in America is rooted in Philadelphia, and the first penal construct that sparked a transition from the prison to the penitentiary was the Walnut Street Jail. The jail was opened in 1773 and until 1795 its primary function was holding prisoners before their trials. Pennsylvania’s Act of 1786 called for inmates within the commonwealth’s system, meaning the Walnut Street Jail, to be forced to perform hard labor publically. Consequently, there was a push on the part of the Society of Friends to have the penal system treat inmates more humanely. The Friends, a religious group, believed in the power of reformation, and preached that physically punishing the inmates would not help them to reform their lives. In the late 1780s the Society of Friends began to involve itself more deeply in Pennsylvania’s penal system, influencing penal ideology and architecture with their religious values.

Pennsylvania passed two acts in 1789 and 1790 that transferred control of the Walnut Street Jail from the local Sheriff to the Commonwealth, which began taking more responsibility for convicted felons.  Walnut Street Prison became Pennsylvania’s first state prison, and in consequent construction projects on the prison wings were built for the purpose of holding convicts in solitary confinement. This legislation and these architectural advancements marked the beginning of the shift from prisons to penitentiaries, as well as the birth of the Pennsylvania System of penitentiary architecture.[i]


Pennsylvania System

The Pennsylvania System draws ideas from Jeremy Bentham’s notions of discipline and punishment, William Blackburn’s Radial System of prison architecture, and Quaker values of solitude and reformation. Bentham’s Panopticon, first described in 1787, could satisfy many architectural functions such as school or hospital. As a penitentiary the Panopticon was an annular cellblock wrapped around an administrative tower from which all prisoners could be watched.[ii] The ideas behind the Panopticon, especially the importance of visibility, were incorporated into the standard penitentiary model.

The “Radial System” was conceived in 1787 by English architect William Blackburn. Unlike Bentham’s Panopticon, Blackburn’s design was created specifically to be used in the construction of prisons. Blackburn’s vision consisted of a central house for a watchman, and four cellblocks radiating from this nucleus.[iii] It was Blackburn’s system that inspired architect John Haviland’s 1822 design of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania[iv].


Figure 2. John Haviland

John Haviland was an English architect who moved to the United States for job opportunities; in 1818 he published a book called The Builder’s Assistant and was consequently offered commissions for the construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Haviland constructed the penitentiary around a central building which served as an inspection hall. In addition to this vantage point were seven cell blocks radiating out from the central building, three of which were one story high and four of which were two stories high. Exercise yards were attached to the first three cellblocks, which could be entered through these yards. A tower was placed on top of the central building so that guards would be able to survey all rooftops, exercise yards, and any other spaces through which prisoners may try to escape.

Haviland’s design of the façade of the penitentiary was heavily Gothic in style.[v] This construct not only served its function in containing the criminal element of Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania; in addition, the striking appearance of the building was meant to intimidate the citizens of the communities around the penitentiary. The land commissioned for the penitentiary was surrounded by a wall that prevented escape, and the front building was designed to look like a medieval castle. The construct’s daunting façade inspired fear of the gruesome tortures that may await a convicted criminal[vi]. Haviland capitalized on society’s desire not to see what happened to the inmates; if they were not watching the punishments inflicted, they would be left to fear the worst for themselves should they ever enter the penitentiary.

Haviland’s architectural design of the Eastern State Penitentiary perfectly embodied the Pennsylvania System of penitentiary design, which grounded itself in the idea of solitary confinement. Use of solitary confinement as a punishment for prisoners was the result of Quaker influence. The Quakers believed that if an inmate was given the opportunity for isolated mediation, they would reflect on their crimes and reform themselves.[vii] However, failure at Eastern State Penitentiary inspired the Auburn System of penitentiary design. The new system retained the concept of keeping prisoners in solitude at night; however, while the prisoners of Eastern State were perpetually solitary, prisoners in the new facility worked in silent congregations during the day[viii].


Auburn System

The Auburn Penitentiary opened in 1817 in New York but did not finish construction until the mid 1830s. This delay occurred because inmate labor built a majority of the prison; this is representative of the Auburn System, in which inmates earn their own keep by performing factory and other physical work throughout their sentences. This system promoted the Quaker value of silence which was present in the Pennsylvania System, but instead of keeping inmates apart, the prisoners were forced together daily for silent labor. This style of penitentiary management inspired the additional names “Congregate” and “Silent” System.[ix]


Figure 3. Workers in the Auburn Penitentiary

After the construction and initial successes of Auburn after 1817, the Congregate System gained popularity and was adopted in most states, excluding Pennsylvania. The design reflected practicality more so than that of the Pennsylvania System. The reformers who created the Pennsylvania System were religious philosophers and idealists, while the men who aided in the design of Auburn included construction workers and the men who would become guards at the facility. By keeping all of the prisoners in one room during work hours, fewer guards were needed to watch the group. During the daytime hours keeping the prisoners in silent, well-monitored congregations performing labor was easier than having to manage each individual prisoner in their own cell. The Auburn System was designed to accommodate larger inmate populations. Overcrowding was often the first sign of the inevitable failure penitentiaries, so the Congregate System attempted to adapt to the growing inmate population in New York. [x]


Newgate’s Place in Penitentiary History


Figure 4. Newgate Penitentiary

Newgate Penitentiary was built just at the end of the 18th century in the Pennsylvania Style of penitentiary architecture. The main designer and first director of the penitentiary, Thomas Eddy, was a member of the Society of Friends who believed that keeping the prisoners separate and silent would be best for their reformation; however, the construction of the penitentiary itself did not achieve that goal. Although Eddy did not initially believe in solitary confinement, by the time he retired in 1804 the penitentiary was using solitary confinement as a regular punishment.[xi] In this sense, Newgate came to resemble the Pennsylvania System. Newgate experienced most of its problems because within the first five years of its opening it was exceptionally overcrowded. While Eastern State was designed to handle numbers by keeping everyone separate, and Auburn was designed to keep them massed together, Newgate straddled the line architecturally, which contributed to its ultimate failure.

-Casey Robinson


[i] DePuy, Leroy B. “The Walnut Street Prison: Pennsylvania’s First Penitentiary.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 18, no.2 (1951): 131, 133.

[ii] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 200.

[iii] Johnston, Norman B. “Pioneers in Criminology. V. John Haviland (1792-1852).” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 45, no. 5 (1955): 513.

[iv] Johnston, Norman B. Forms of Constraint: A History of Prison Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 70.

[v] Johnston, “Pioneers in Criminology” 514.

[vi] Johnston, “Pioneers in Criminology” 518.

[vii] W. David Lewis From Newgate to Dannemora New York: 32.

[viii] Johnston, “Pioneers in Criminology” 515.

[ix] Johnston, Forms of Constraint. 76.

[x] Johnston, Forms of Constraint. 78.

[xi] Lewis From Newgate to Dannemora. 29.


Fig. 1. Walnut Street Jail. August 12, 1973. Digital Public Library of America, Temple University. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 2. Neagle, John. John Haviland. 1828. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 3. Workshops in the Auburn Prison. July, 1911. The American Review of Reviews. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 4. State Prison Greenwich Village. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Digital Image. Available from: