Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Prison Society

Founded in 1787 as the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Prison Society quickly became a leading advocate for the humane and salutary treatment of the incarcerated. From the restructuring of the Walnut Street Jail in the eighteenth century, to the construction and oversight of the Eastern State Penitentiary in the nineteenth, and its ongoing work as a social casework agency, the society’s efforts shaped correctional practices in Pennsylvania and beyond.

A black and white portrait of Tench Coxe, head and bust, wearing a dark coat.

Tench Coxe was one of the first members of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. His frequent changes of political party earned him the nickname “Mr. Facing Both-ways” among his political enemies. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Although it soon gained international renown, the Pennsylvania Prison Society began humbly. As was typical in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, many of the group’s founders, including Caleb Lownes (1754–1828), Christopher Marshall (1709–97), Isaac Parrish (1734–1826), and Thomas Wistar (1765–1851), were prominent members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). From the outset, however, the Prison Society was decidedly nondenominational. William White (1748–1836), a bishop in the Episcopal Church, served as the organization’s first president, a position he held for forty-nine years until his death in 1836. Many of the society’s charter members were men of both local and national (and even international) repute. Physician and Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), politician Tench Coxe (1755–1824), and publisher Zachariah Poulson (1761–1844) all attended the society’s first meeting on May 8, 1787.

Spurred by reports of deplorable conditions in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, the society appointed an acting committee of six to ascertain the conditions of confinement and its effect on inmates’ moral and physical wellbeing. Prison Society visitors found a chaotic institution where inmates of all types, ages, and sexes mixed indiscriminately in an environment rife with obscenity, idleness, and vice. Realizing that the direct relief offered to prisoners in the form of bibles, clothing, medical care, and cash would not address these broader problems, the society also turned its efforts toward legislative change. Proposed reforms included abolishing the use of iron shackles and establishing a set salary for the jailer to avoid corruption.

A line drawing of Walnut Street with the prison to the left. The prison is three stories tall and has a prominent cupola.

The Pennsylvania Society for Relieving the Miseries of Public Prisons formed in response to stories of inhumane treatment and unsanitary conditions at the Walnut Street Jail. In 1790, the society built a new penitentiary at the prison where prisoners were expected to silently repent in private cells. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Most significantly, the Prison Society supported the solitary confinement of all prisoners. Influenced by the writings of the British prison reformer John Howard (1726–90), the proposed “separate system” would prevent hardened criminals from corrupting first-time offenders and would provide all inmates with the space needed for serious reflection and reform. Following legislative approval in 1790 for the separation of prisoners by age, gender, and crime committed, the Walnut Street Jail and the Pennsylvania Prison Society became models for prison reform efforts throughout the United States and in Europe.

Even as the Walnut Street Jail earned accolades from visitors, the Pennsylvania Prison Society was far from satisfied on the state of correctional practices. After a deadly riot at Walnut Street in 1820, Prison Society members escalated calls for a larger state institution purpose-built for the separation of all prisoners. In 1829, the first group of prisoners moved into individual cells at the new Eastern State Penitentiary. Though technically a state-run institution, the Prison Society served as sole outside overseer of the facility and active society members Roberts Vaux (1786–1836), Thomas Bradford (1781–1857), and John Bacon (1779-1859) filled three of the eleven state-appointed commissioner positions, while Samuel R. Wood (1776-?) served as the first warden of Eastern State.

A membership certificate reading "The Pennsylvania Society for Relieving the Miseries of Public Prisons" above a portrait of the first president of the society framed in leaves. Below, an illustration of the eastern state penitentiary from overhead showing radi

Nineteenth-century membership certificates for the Pennsylvania Prison Society prominently displayed first president Bishop William White and the Eastern State Penitentiary. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Much of the society’s activity in the nineteenth century centered on the oversight of Eastern State and defense of the separate system, which became known as the “Pennsylvania System.” In 1845, largely in response to growing criticism from opponents of such extreme solitary confinement, the society established Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy (later renamed The Prison Journal) to improve public outreach. Early editions extolled the successes of the Pennsylvania System alongside reports of the achievements and deficiencies of penal practices elsewhere in the United States and abroad.

Although the Pennsylvania System spread to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, the practice quickly fell out of favor in the United States. In part due to ongoing questions about the morality of solitary confinement, the scheme was ultimately abandoned because of the untenable costs of providing separate living, working, eating, and exercise quarters for every inmate. In response to these changes, the Pennsylvania Prison Society shifted its attention in the early twentieth century to other pressing issues, including parole and probation standards and the use of prison labor. Over the course of the twentieth century, the society’s activities were increasingly professionalized, with paid staff working with prisoners and their families to ensure legal and just treatment within the correctional system. Nevertheless, the Prison Society’s commitment to the humane and just treatment of prisoners remained at the core of its mission as the group continued to serve as an important advocate for the incarcerated and a leading voice in penal reform.

Laura Michel is a Ph.D. student in History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She studies issues surrounding crime, poverty, and philanthropy in the early modern Atlantic World.

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Related Reading

McKelvey, Blake. American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1977.

Meranze, Michael. Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760–1835. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Pillsbury, Samuel H. “Understanding Penal Reform: The Dynamic of Change,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 80 (1989), 726–80.

Roberts, Leonard H. “The Historic Roots of American Prison Reform: A Story of Progress and Failure.” Journal of Correctional Education, 36 (1985): 106–9.

Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971.

Sheehan, Glenn W., “Eastern State Penitentiary: A Study in ‘Progressive’ Penology,” Archaeology, 45 (1992): 44–47.

Teeters, Negley K. “The Pennsylvania Prison Society: A Century and a Half of Penal Reform,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 28 (1938), 374–79.

——. They Were in Prison: A History of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, 1787­–1937. Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1937.

Wiebe, Robert. The Search for Order, 1877­–1920. New York: Hill and Wang, 1966.


Pennsylvania Prison Society Records (1787–1966), Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia.

Walnut Street Prison Historical Marker, Southeast Corner of Sixth and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

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