Moyamensing Prison

This is a County Prison, situated on the Passaunk road, about two miles from the centre of the City, embracing Debtors and Criminal, apartments. The entire front of the main building is erected of Kennebunk granite, a rich material, presenting the aspect of the grand, solemn, and solid, as if the structures were reared for ages. It is a pure specimen of Gothic Architecture, from a design, by our distinguished architect, T. U. Walter, Esq. The debtor's apartment, is a pure specimen of the Egyptian style, constructed from the red freestone, and containing twenty-four sleeping rooms, arranged on either side of a hall, running the whole length of the structure. The two extensive corridors, are constructed of a common species of granite, the two principal ones being each 376 feet long, in the clear, by 20 wide, and there are 204 cells in each corridor. Another corridor, of 102 cells is about being completed; they are three stories high, with an area whole length between. The cells are upon each side, the access to which is, by galleries running the whole front on the second and third stories. The cells are arched above, and perfectly fireproof; they are eleven feet in length, by nine wide and warmed by a flue from the heating chambers, which run the entire length of each wing, beneath the first story. There is a pipe introduced into every cell, which brings water from the great basins at Fair Mount: There are also water tanks, conveying water to every cell, for the purpose of cleansing daily, and a cold air flue, for free ventilation.

Like the system adopted in the State Prison, (Eastern Penitentiary) the practice of solitary confinement, with labor, is found to be a great improvement. The convicts are taught trades, and set at work, each one, in his own cell. Weaving, spinning and shoemaking are most performed. Hand-looms are erected. In the rooms, at which, almost all the women convicts, and many of the males are employed. The raw material (cotton) is purchased, and every process necessary, to turn it into cotton fabrics is performed within the walls of the prison, and the fabrics stand higher than any other in the market. Some of the superannuated prisoners are employed in picking wool, in the third story, which is manufacture into woolen goods.

The prisoners are received upon a common level; but they are dealt with, according to their good or bad conduct, afterwards. The extreme of punishment is, confinement in a dark cell, on water and half a lb. of bread each day. Taking work away from the prisoners is often a sufficient punishment; they beg for it again, as they have nothing to occupy their minds in their cells. Solitary confinement without labor, produces insanity; but solitary confinement with labor, produces moral reformation.

An account is opened with every prisoner; they are stinted with a task, and paid for what they perform over.

One person was lately discharged, who had been imprisoned twenty-three months, and was paid $106 50, for over work.

Some idea of the amount of work done in the prison, may be formed, from the fact, that the average of cotton fabrics produced, is about Five Thousand yards per week.


At an early period of the History of Pennsylvania, the philanthropic spirit of its Founder, William Penn, had turned, public attention to a melioration of punishments, and the sanguinary code, of the mother country, was modified, on the side of mercy. In 1768, an attempt was made to introduce hard labor, as a punishment of criminals, in many offences, before that time, of a capital grade.

In 1787, Dr. Rush read a paper, before a Benevolent Society, assembled at the house of Dr. Franklin, entitled, "An enquiry into the influence of public executions, on criminals and society." The philanthropic ideas, which he advanced, were considered wild and visionary notions. In 1788, Dr. Rush following the suggestion of the celebrated Marquis Beccaria, in a treatise on "Grimes and Punishments," again presented the subject to public consideration, in a printed form, and even denied the right of government, to destroy life, as a punishment: From these early endeavors, have arisen the great improvements made by in our Penitentiary systems, and the certainty of regulated punishments seems, so far to promise, much more in the correction of crime, than the sanguinary code, of former times.

History of Philadelphia

Source: A History of Philadelphia: With a Notice of Villages, in the Vicinity, Printed and published by Daniel Bowen, 1839

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