Parallels between Religious and Architectural Reform in the Penal System


In the early 19th century, prison architecture in the United States reflected values that became popularized in light of religious revivals. These values, such as isolation and visibility can be seen not only in the developing architectural style of prisons and penitentiaries in major cities throughout the United States, but also in the Second Great Awakening. The religious sects participating in the Second Great Awakening modeled architectural projects to reflect their developing beliefs, and parallels can be drawn between the architectural trends of sects like the Shakers and various prisons. Moreover, Quaker influence can be traced to specific penal institutions constructed during this time period. Values that aided in spiritual growth and reformation were translated  into architectural styles that were then used in designing not only religious communities, but also penitentiaries and prisons.


The Second Great Awakening

The Second Great Awakening was a religious resurgence in the United States that began around 1790. Hallmarks of the Second Great Awakening across religious groups include an emphasis on reformation, especially through an individualized relationship with God based in silent prayer and meditations.[i]  Two groups, the Quakers and the Shakers, both evolved during the Second Great Awakening. The Quakers became more politically active, while the Shakers separated themselves from society almost completely. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or the Shakers, are a community known for their celibate lifestyles, pacifism, longstanding belief in the equality of the sexes, and communal lifestyle. Meanwhile, the Society of Friends, or Quaker sect, is known for their political and social involvement, as well as for their ideological focus on silence, meditation, and individualism in a person’s relationships with their community and with God.[ii] The Quakers engaged themselves deeply into penal reform in the form of the Pennsylvania System of penitentiary architecture, which mirrored the evolving design of Shaker commune houses.


Penitentiary Reform

In 1818 John Haviland began to build the Eastern State Penitentiary, the first penitentiary built from the Pennsylvania System. The Pennsylvania System was heavily influenced by the Quakers, and emphasized keeping inmates separate from one another and silent, so as to allow them the chance to meditate on their sins and reform. Quakers believed that spiritual enlightenment came through silent prayer and meditation in combination with education. This belief was reflected in the key feature of the Pennsylvania System: solitary confinement.  Each prisoner was kept in complete solitude for the duration of their sentence, never allowed to leave their cell or see another person. In this structure prisoners were forced into silent contemplation that the Quakers believed would inspire both spiritual conversion and social reformation.

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Figure 1. Pennsylvania System design

Isolation in Architecture

Religious Communes

During the Second Great Awakening, Shaker communities were embracing the ideal of isolation by building private communes in rural New York. The Shakers living in these cities were divided into three ‘families’ based on time spent with the community and devotion to the cause. This structure resulted from the belief that the most spiritually devote members of the community should not interact with the less devote, lest the morally lacking manner of the latter infect the former.  In Shaker communities the concept of contagion was fought with separate living spaces for the different ‘families’.


Figure 2. Shaker meeting room

The houses within the Shaker communes were designed specifically to keep men and women apart at all times. Bedrooms were segregated by gender, and strategically designed hallways ensured that the only room in which males and females would come in contact was the meeting room, or prayer room.  This design of separation mirrors the concept of crime as a contagion in the penitentiaries: some prison reformers believed that allowing hardened criminals to live alongside first time or young offenders fostered an inclination to continue a criminal lifestyle.[iii]


Penitentiary Reform

One of two central values of the Second Great Awakening adapted into architecture in prisons is that of isolation. Religious communities during the spiritual movement emphasized the individuality of the faith journey: believers were supposed to isolate themselves, away from distractions, in order to seek enlightenment. Prisons moved outside of urban areas, so as to create a sense of separation from society in general, and the interior structures of prisons kept the incarcerated apart from each other. The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was comprised of cells that housed one inmate each, and each inmate remained in the cell for the entirety of their sentence. Inmates were not permitted to see nor communicate with one another. In light of the Second Great Awakening and Quaker influence, the design of the penitentiary changed to reflect the revived values of isolation and silence as keys to spiritual reformation. This design became known as the Pennsylvania System of penitentiary architecture, and was most popular in Pennsylvania during the 1820s and 1830s.[iv]


Figure3. Single-prisoner cell

Light and the Value of Visibility

Religious Communes

Shaker communities in the 1790s were being erected with houses that had windows in every room, some that opened to the outside of the house so as to allow in light and air, and others that granted visual access from one room of the house into another. The functional windows did hold symbolic meaning to the Shakers; specifically, that through light God was always accessible and always present. However, it was the interior windows that were much more relevant to the movement of the Second Great Awakening. Every house in a Shaker community had an elder living inside of it, and the windows served to allow the elder to watch the other occupants of the house at all times.[v] Because every room contained windows, in no room was a person guaranteed privacy. More pointedly, at no point was an occupant of a Shaker house given to the idea that they were not being watched, and by extension free to sin without repercussion. The idea of perpetual visibility became integral to penitentiary design, where buildings were constructed around the prison guard. A guard at the center of a penitentiary was supposed to be able to see any inmate and any potential trouble within the cellblock.


Penitentiary Reform

In 1787, social reformer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham published his design of a Panopticon house, an architectural structure that utilized light in order to control the behavior of those people placed within the structure. Bentham’s idea of strategically using  light in penitentiaries was incorporated into many structures of the early 19th century.[vi] Theoretically, the natural light illuminating the inmates, in conjunction with strategically placed windows, would allow constant surveillance of inmates. Any action deemed inappropriate could be immediately addressed by the authority figure observing the inmate. William Blackburn’s Radial System of penitentiary architecture incorporated Bentham’s idea of perpetual visibility, as did the Pennsylvania System and John Haviland’s Eastern State Penitentiary.[vii]


Figure 4. Example of Radial System design

The Second Great Awakening affected an influential demographic of the United States population, which explains the connection between penitentiary and religious reforms. Quakers and Shakers, seeing themselves as moral leaders, set precedents for the rest of the community to follow. Shaker reforms were studied by Quakers, who then took positions on political boards involved in the construction of penitentiaries. The shared spiritual values of the Shakers and Quakers inevitably became intertwined in penal reform, specifically through the architectural endeavors spearheaded by public Quaker figures.

-Casey Robinson


[i] Julie Nicoletta, “The Architecture of Control: Shaker Dwelling Houses and the Reform Movement of Early-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62, no.3 (2003): 356

[ii] Dumm, Thomas L. “Friendly Persuasion: Quakers, Liberal Toleration, and the Birth of the Prison,” Political Theory 13 no. 3 (1985): 392

[iii] Nicoletta, “Architecture of Control”. 355, 360

[iv] Johnston, Norman B. “Pioneers in Criminology. V. John Haviland (1792-1852).” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 45, no. 5 (1955): 514

[v] Nicoletta, “Architecture of Control”. 362, 373

[vi] Foucault. Discipline and Punish: 200.

[vii] Johnston, Forms of Constraint. 78


Fig. 1. Eastern State Penitentiary Floor Plan. 1836. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 2. Shakers During Religious Services at Meeting House. 1885. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 3. Cell from ESP. 2012. Digital Image. Available from:

Fig. 4. Hallway of ESP. 2012. Digital Image. Available from: