Prior to the late 18th century, architectural design was not a priority in the construction of prisons in the United States; in fact, many prisons were not constructed at all. Rather, empty buildings were repurposed to house prison facilities. When prisons were erected on sites where no buildings existed previously, little attention was paid to the purpose of the building by designers and contractors.[i] In 1787 British philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham designed a theoretical structure called a “Panopticon” whose architecture would make inmates perpetually visible and therefore obey the rules established in the building.[ii] In 1796 Thomas Eddy spearheaded the construction of Newgate penitentiary in New York, the interior design of which can be studied for its attempt at architectural determinism.
Thomas Eddy was a member of the Society of Friends and an active member of New York society and politics the 1790s; often his political and religious ideas became intertwined in his work. Eddy drew much of his inspiration for the architectural design of the Newgate facility from the teachings of the Quaker faith. For instance, the Quakers valued quiet contemplation and access to religion, and Eddy incorporated into Newgate both a room specifically for weekly worship services and cells that were meant to minimize prisoner interactions.[iii] After the completion of Newgate’s construction, Eddy would go on to be the facility’s first director.[iv]
Thomas Eddy’s wanted to construct a penitentiary that effectively kept inmates separate from society while they were reforming themselves. As a Quaker, Eddy believed that education in conjunction with silent meditation and earnest prayer would lead to spiritual enlightenment and the social reform of criminals. Eddy also believed that the interior design of the penitentiary would prevent criminal intent from spreading like a contagion from inmate to inmate. Moreover, the design of the penitentiary would allow the staff to keep inmates under constant surveillance. The goal of reforming the prisoners, rather than simply punishing them for their crimes, is the key difference between a prison and a penitentiary, and the heart of the Quaker influence on the American penal system.[v]
Physical Design of Newgate
The Newgate Penitentiary facility in New York, designed by Thomas Eddy, had three main sections: a central structure whose function was to house offices for the administration and staff of the penitentiary, and two wings flanking this central structure, both of which housed the inmate quarters. In addition, the penitentiary contained a large room for the purpose of hosting weekly worship services for the inmates, prison shops in which the inmates could work factory-style jobs, usually shoemaking,[vi] and outdoor yards meant for inmate exercise.[vii] The inclusion of the prayer room reflected Eddy’s Quaker belief that an active relationship with God was necessary for spiritual enlightenment, and underscored the fact that a penitentiary was not meant to punish inmates; rather, its purpose was to facilitate religious conversion and reformation.
The Newgate facility contained 54 total cells in both of its wings housing inmate quarters. Each cell measured 12 feet by 18 feet, and was designed to hold eight inmates each; by these calculations, Newgate Facility was constructed to house a maximum of 432 inmates.[viii] This number did not account for prisoners deemed too corrupt to house with other inmates; initially Thomas Eddy did not believe in sentencing a criminal to solitary, but later he began punishing inmates with short periods of solitary confinement.[ix] The Quakers believed that reformation could not be forced upon a person; therefore, Eddy believed that the penitentiary was not a house of punishment, but a house of conversion and repentance. Eddy’s shift in practice was the result of inmates not showing spiritual progress; rather, many young inmates were learning the criminal habits of their more hardened cellmates. Solitary confinement helped to prevent the older inmates from further corrupting their more innocent counterparts.
Failure of Newgate
Despite Eddy’s best intentions, Newgate was constantly overcrowded and suffered from numerous riots on the part of the inmates. Eddy quickly realized that his inmates were not reforming in his penitentiary; rather, they were corrupting each other and intensifying their desires to commit crime. During his first couple of years as warden of Newgate, Eddy realized that designing inmate cells to host 8 prisoners each led to the spread of criminality because the inmates were socializing in their cell groups. This trend was only exacerbated by the overcrowded that followed quick on the heels of the opening of the penitentiary: despite being designed to hold less than 450 inmates there were times during Eddy’s residency that nearly double that number of inmates.[x] Eddy noted before the major influx of occupants that the cells that were supposed to hold eight inmates were more and more frequently finding twelve crammed into the already tight living quarters.[xi]
This overcrowding became even more hectic after a government order in 1826 demanded that inmates be separated in order to classify such as severity of their crimes. Newgate was already too small to accommodate its inmate population, and to have to shuffle around the living situations of these inmates was causing trouble for guards.[xii] These problems encountered by the Newgate penitentiary were the result not of architectural flaws, but simply in the lack of foresight of Thomas Eddy to build a facility capable of accounting for a large inmate population.
Shifting to the Auburn System
The failure of Newgate was occurring at the same time a shift was taking place in the design of penitentiary architecture in the United States. The Auburn System of penitentiary architecture was designed to solve the problems of the Pennsylvania System, which relied solely on solitary confinement to control its prisoners. The Auburn System, first put into place at the Auburn Penitentiary in New York in 1817, emphasized on congregate prison labor during the day, but silent, solitary cells at night. This design countered the Pennsylvania System, which kept the prisoners in complete isolation for the entirety of their sentences.[xiii]
Newgate was not built in the true Pennsylvania style of architecture, nor was it modeled in the Auburn System. Architecturally, Newgate put too much faith in the prisoners: that they would willingly conform to the expectations of the designers and directors of the facility. The building was not constructed to handle the massive numbers of prisoners sent to the facility after its opening, and the ultimate failure of Newgate only further supported the need for penal reformation. After the 1830s, the Auburn System became the primary architectural design for American penitentiaries.
[i] Innes, Joanna. “The Fabrication of Virtue. English Prison Architecture 1750-1840 by Robin Evans” The English Historical Review 100 no. 3 (1985): 425
[ii] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 200.
[iii] Samuel L. Knapp, The Life of Thomas Eddy. New York: Conner & Cooke, 1834. 76
[iv] Lewis, W. Davis From Newgate to Dannemora New York: 30
[v] Innes. “Fabrication of Virtue”: 425
[vi]Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: 30
[vii] Knapp, Life of Thomas Eddy. 92
[viii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: 31
[ix] Knapp, Life of Thomas Eddy. 76
[x] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: 41
[xi] Knapp, Life of Thomas Eddy. 76, 81
[xii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: 46
[xiii] Johnston, Norman B. Forms of Constraint: A History of Prison Architecture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. 78
Fig. 1. Levenick, Christopher. Thomas Eddy. Digital Image. Available from: http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/almanac/hall_of_fame/thomas_eddy
Fig. 2. State Prison Greenwich Village. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Digital Image. Available from: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2355-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Fig. 3. NY’s First State Prison. Digital Image. Available from: http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/penitentiary2.html
Fig. 4. Philadelphia Riot. Digital Image. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_riots#/media/File:Philadelphia1844riot.jpg