Quaker Prison Reform

  • Religion
  • 1681

Quakers showed deep philanthropic conviction from their earliest days in America. They gave generously of both money and time to scores of causes—building schools, aiding the sick, donating to the poor, registering early opposition to slavery. Prison reform was one of their earliest crusades.

William Penn had been imprisoned several times in the Tower of London for his religious beliefs. (He wrote his Christian classic No Cross, No Crown while locked up.) So when King Charles II handed over to Penn, as repayment for a debt the king owed Penn’s father, the land that now makes up Pennsylvania and Delaware (one of the largest individual land grants in history), Penn was determined that his new colony would take a very different approach to imprisonment.

In 1681 he spelled out that in Pennsylvania “all prisoners shall be bailable…unless for capital offences, where the proof is evident, or the presumption great.” At a time when prisoners had to pay for their food, and for small services like having their irons unlocked so they could appear in court, Penn stipulated that “all prisons shall be free as to fees, food, and lodging.” Penn limited the death penalty to the crimes of murder and treason—at a time when English law doled out capital punishment for more than 200 different crimes. He also insisted that instead of being dungeons, prisons should be workhouses, aimed at rehabilitation, with inmates taught a trade that could allow them to earn an honest living once released. In his lockups, men finished and shaped wood, and women spun yarn. Penn intended that in these new measures “an example may be set up to the nations as…a holy experiment.”

Quakers continued to put energy and money into prison reform for centuries. Dismayed by the nineteenth-century convention of locking 30 to 40 inmates together in large rooms, the Quakers pushed to have hardened criminals separated from novices, debtors from the violent, women from men, and so forth. They were instrumental in establishing separate channels to handle juvenile delinquents. (See 1825 entry on companion list of achievements building Prosperity.)

In 1829 Quakers opened a famous prison in Philadelphia that housed every resident in a strict solitary confinement meant to encourage penitence. The concept became influential worldwide. This innovation was taken to an extreme—the isolation and silence could also sometimes encourage mental illness—but the shift to small cells, more humane treatment, and rehabilitative efforts became the new norm in America and other countries.