Pennsylvania Prison Society

Editor’s Note:  This document was in the files of Charles Richmond Henderson (1848 – 1915), a notable sociologist and prison reformer. Henderson’s first book was, “An Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective, and Delinquent Classes,” which appeared in 1893. While the book in its original form has long since passed out of print and out of date, yet it formed an important landmark in the development of practical social science. It was the first serious attempt in America to present a complete view of the work of society along charitable and corrective lines. The new note that it struck was its emphasis upon the fact that all the interests of society were affected by the existence of the depraved and unfortunate classes, and that therefore the work in their behalf was a social task which must be shared by the whole community.

Early in the year 1776, a Society was organized by some benevolent citizens of Philadelphia under the name “The Philadelphia Society for Assisting Distressed Prisoners.” After a career of nineteen months the Society was by motion dissolved on account of difficulties arising during the troublous period of the war for Independence.

In 1787 some of the members of the first organization, with other philanthropic citizens met in the German School House on Cherry Street, and constituted themselves “The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.” From that time to this year of grace, 1910, this society has been actively engaged in securing measures to improve the conditions of prisons, and also in earnest endeavors to reform the criminals, and so far as known is the oldest Prison Society in continued existence in the world.

Prominent among the founders were Bishop William White, the President of the Society for the first fifty years, Dr. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Wistar, William Shippen, Richard Vaux, and Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.

The Presidents of the Society have been Bishop White, 1787-1836, Thomas Wistar, 1837, John Bacon, 1838-1839, Zachariah Poulson, 1840-1844, George Williams, 1845-1847, James J. Barclay, 1849-1885, Edward Townsend, 1886, Caleb J. Milne, 1887-1903, Charles M. Morton, 1903-1904, George W. Hall, 1905-1906, Joshua L. Baily, 1907, the present incumbent whose membership dating from 1851, is longer in point of service than any other living member.

In the first year of the existence of the Society about 150 gentlemen of Philadelphia were connected with the Society. They adopted a constitution which, from time to time, has been somewhat changed in order to harmonize with different conditions, but their object, as stated in their Preamble was to discover “such degree and modes of punishment” as might restore our “fellow creatures to virtue and happiness.” In the spirit of the Founder of Christianity they proposed to extend compassion toward the fallen by “alleviating” the unwholesome conditions in prisons and by mitigating the “unnecessary severity” of punishments. With undeviating fidelity the Society has endeavored to carry out the original purpose of the Founders.

An annuity of the value of about $70,000, the donation of John Dickinson, was the only permanent revenue of the new Society, but from that day to this a large part of the not inconsiderable expenses of this Society has been defrayed by donations of friends of the cause. A quotation from the first appeal, 1787, which was signed by William White, illustrates the earnestness of the founders. “To a people professing Christianity it will be sufficient to mention that acts of charity to the miserable tenants of prisons are upon record amongst the first Christian duties. From these ladies, therefore, whom heaven has blessed with affluence, and the still greater gift of sympathy,-from gentlemen who acknowledge the obligations of humanity, from the relation of our species to each other in a common and universal Father,-and from the followers of the compassionate Savious of mankind of every rank and description, the Society thus humbly solicits an addition to its funds.”

The following year, 1788, the Society addressed the following letter to John Howard, the great apostle in the work of ameliorating the conditions of prisons. “The Society heartily concurs with the friends of humanity in Europe in expressing their obligation to you for having rendered the miserable tenants of prisons the objects of more general attention and compassion, and for having pointed out some of the means not only of alleviating their miseries but of preventing those crimes and misfortunes which are the cause of them.” A year or two later John Howard left on record an expression of appreciation of the noble work of the Philadelphia Society. The following sentiment was found among his papers: “Should the plan take place during my life of establishing a permanent charity under some such title as that at Philadelphia, viz; ‘a society for alleviating the miseries of public prisons,’ I would most readily stand at the bottom of a page for Five hundred pounds.” The organizers of the Society had a tremendous task before them, and they went at their work with energetic diligence. Very little effort had ever been made to carry out William Penn’s injunction that “all prisons should be considered workhouses for the employment of criminals and of the idle and vicious.” There was an ill-constructed prison at the corner of High and Third streets with subterranean dungeons for those under sentence of death. “In one common herd were kept by day and night prisoners of all ages, colors and sexes. There was no separation of the most flagrant felon from the prisoner held on suspicion for some trifling misdemeanor. There was no separation of the fraudulent swindler from the unfortunate, and often estimable debtor. This assembly of the most vicious of both sexes resulted in unspeakable conditions. There was little furniture and no bedding. Unless supplied by their friends, the inmates lay on the floor. A small loaf of bread was allowed each day to each prisoner, and nought else was obtainable unless the prisoner had money. Intoxicating drinks were supplied to all who could pay for them, and it was a common custom to strip newcomers of most of their garments in order to pawn the clothing for drink. The keeper readily connived at all these purchases in as much as he charged a liberal commission for attending to their vicious demands. Parents were allowed to have their children with them in jail, and these youthful culprits were exposed to all the corrupting influences of association with confirmed and reckless villains. There was no employment of any sort. Innocent persons detained as witnesses were thrown in with the most abandoned felons. The keeper had power to retain prisoners till certain fees were paid so that often persons were kept in this unwholesome lazarette for months or years after their legal term had expired. The Society early resolved that two leading elements of the desired reformation were to find employment for the inmates and to interdict the use of intoxicants. They also insisted that there must be a segregation not only of the sexes but also that there must be an individual separation in order that the penal institutions should not become “schools for crime.” In 1790 an act was passed to reform the penal code of the State by which the principle or individual separation was first legally recognized, though to be applied only to “more hardened and atrocious offenders, who are sentenced for a term of years;” and the introduction of intoxicating drinks was prohibited under severe penalties. In 1794 it was enacted that all convicts should have confinement in separate cells, but the Inspectors have always been compelled to exercise their discretion in the enforcement of this law, since generally there are more prisoners than cells. From the first the Society has advocated separate confinement and individual treatment, but has not stood for absolutely solitary imprisonment. There is no objection to work done in groups, provided that the prisoners are under direct supervision of the proper officials. Visits from the officers, from ministers, from all properly concerned persons, have been encouraged. Visitations by members of the Prison Society began under peculiar difficulties, as it is one record that the keeper with loaded cannon resisted the first attempt to pay visits to the inmates, but the beneficial effect of the visits were soon officially recognized, and have been maintained with great regularity to the present day, The Acting Committee in 1909 having reported 10,951 visits to prisoners. In the year 1829 when the Eastern Penitentiary, whose plan and management at that time represented the most advanced ideas in prison construction and discipline, the members of the Acting Committee of the Society were, by enactment of the State Legislature, constituted “Official Visitors” of prisons.

In 1794 the Society succeeded in securing the abolition of the exaction of fees by the jailers as a condition of release, and a competent salary was authorized to be paid to the prison officials. About the same time it was decreed that capital punishment should be inflicted only for the crime of murder.

Barbarous methods of punishment, such as the pillory, branding with hot irons, the whipping post, were soon dispensed with as reformatory measures.

In 1844 the Society issued the first number of “The Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy.” At first this periodical was published quarterly, but for many years it has been an annual. In the columns of this Journal every phase of prison reform, every measure affecting the management of prisons, every act of penal legislation for nearly seventy years, has received attention.

For about fifty years a Special Agent has been employed who devotes his time to sympathetic care of prisoners from the time they arrive until they have received their discharge. Legal aid is found for those whose cases seem to require it, and where there are mitigating circumstances the charges are often withdrawn and so the accused is restored where often his services are needed. Attention is given to their physical needs at the time of their discharge and effort is made to provide them with employment.

The Commutation Act whereby the sentence of prisoners could be relatively shortened for good behavior was first passed in 1861, for the passage of which Act the members of the Society had worked for years. In recent years some members of the Society have made a thorough study of methods of dealing with criminals in the various states of the Union, and in connection with other interested parties have been instrumental in securing the passage of a law in 1909 which provides for probation for adult offenders, and also for parole for certain classes of offenders. These provisions had for many years applied to juvenile criminals, but before 1909 had no reference to the sentences of adults. The State of Pennsylvania has been quite cautious in adopting some principles of what may be called “The New Penology,” and it is too early at the present time to make any report on the effect in Pennsylvania of this recent legislation. The Society is giving close and sympathetic attention to the practical enforcement of these regulations with the hope that the beneficial effects, reported elsewhere, may here be observed, and that the errors of this system, which have been noted rather conspicuously in the press, may be reducted to a minimum in our State.

For 123 years the Society has steadily and consistently labored to carry out the design of its illustrious founders, and though its members may contemplate with considerable satisfaction the achievements of those years, they are aware that the work is far from completed, and that they still have an important mission in restoring the fallen, in rescuing the perishing, in loosening the incentives for wrong doing.

Source: Henderson, Charles Richmond. Papers, [Box 2, Folder 10], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library






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