City of Philadelphia: History
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City of Philadelphia


1683 - The Beginning

The city's first jail was a seven-by-five-foot cage built in 1683 for the detention of miscreants. Criminals convicted of minor offenses were sentenced to banishment, branding, and public whipping. Charges such as counterfeiting, treason, spying, desertion from the army, burglary, robbery, piracy, rape, sodomy, and murder were considered capital offenses, and convicts were subject to execution by hanging. As the city built larger and more permanent jails over the next century, local reformers shifted away from the use of corporal punishment and toward the institution of fines, restitution, and imprisonment to penalize offenders.

1721 - The System Expands

By 1721, houses of correction and workhouses replaced the smaller prisons that had once stood in central Philadelphia. In 1794, by act of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, the death penalty was reserved solely for persons convicted of murder in the first degree. Once public spectacles, executions were performed inside the prison walls beginning in 1834.

Imprisonment for Debt

The practice of imprisonment for debt was imported from England. A debtor, once imprisoned, was in a worse situation than a criminal, as a criminal's sentence would expire, but a debtor had no hope for release except for payment of his debt. Debtors were housed together with criminals and were responsible for their own keep. Unable to obtain charitable relief, some perished from starvation or want of medicine. By act of 1705, debtors were given a nominal public allowance along with liberty to provide for their own necessities. At the same time, limits were placed on the length of their prison terms. Those unable to pay their debts were sentenced to servitude for a period not to exceed seven years following release from prison. The practice of imprisoning debtors continued until 1841.

1790 - Creation of a Board of Prison Inspectors

Conditions in Philadelphia's early prisons were deplorable, and a board of prison inspectors was created in 1790. The board immediately undertook to separate male prisoners from females and convicts from untried prisoners. Other reforms included the barring of spirituous liquors from the city prisons, paid labor, better clothing and food, and the establishment of regular religious instruction.

1828 - Establishment of a House of Refuge

In 1828, a House of Refuge was established on the northwest corner of Ridge and Fairmount Avenues for the purpose of separating from experienced adult offenders juvenile delinquents (males under 21, females under 18) committed for crimes such as incorrigible or vicious conduct and vagrancy. The schedule of the house was exact with activities scheduled for more than 15 hours each day. Residents rose at 4:45 a.m., bathed, gathered in worship, and went to school. They had a half-hour breakfast commencing at 7 a.m., and were then sent to work until 12 noon, the dinner hour. The residents heard lectures or lessons until 1 p.m. and returned to the shops until 5 p.m. They were allowed one-half hour for supper and recreation before returning to school from 5:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Following prayers, the juveniles were locked in for slumber before 8 p.m.

1829 - Hard Labor for Prisoners

In 1829, a state law was enacted sentencing inmates to hard labor. Philadelphia inmates toiled in nearby stone quarries. They cultivated the ground and farmed, and gathered ice in the winter. They also worked in the bakery and kitchens and manufactured clothing, hats, and shoes. Female inmates sewed and did the laundry.

1927 - Opening of the House of Correction

Originally intended for use as an intermediate establishment between an almshouse and a prison, the House of Correction (nee the House of Correction, Employment and Reformation for Adults and Minors in the City of Philadelphia) was the first institution to be constructed on the present-day Prison campus on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia. The institution housed accused adults along with adults convicted of petty crimes, such as vagrancy, drunkenness, or disorderly conduct. It also housed juveniles over 16 years of age who were truant from school, disobeyed their parents, or were found on the street. Unless exempted by the superintendent for sickness or other casualty, all residents were required to work, either laboring outside or manufacturing items used by the prison, almshouse, and other public institutions. In addition to a separate keeper's residence, the original House of Correction had eight extensive wings, which converged upon a center chapel with the capacity to hold 2,500. The facility also included hospital rooms, a schoolroom for boys, large kitchens, a bakery, storerooms, and shops. In 1925, the original building was razed, and the same materials were used to construct, on the original site, a "new" House of Correction, which opened in 1927. Nearby on Torresdale Avenue, Holmesburg Prison opened in 1896. It was followed in the latter half of the next century by the Detention Center, Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC), Alternative and Special Detention's Central Unit, and Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF).

Solitary confinement, work, and religious guidance were important parts of 18th century prison reform, just as recreation, social services, and education spearheaded 20th century reforms. Originally intended to separate the inmate from criminal influences and to compel him to meditate on his life experiences, by 1910, solitary confinement was conceded to be ineffective in the reform of inmates. The city has focused recent attention on alternatives to incarceration, especially community-based substance-abuse treatment, in an effort to decrease the prison population while reducing criminal recidivism, thereby enhancing community safety.

The Modern Era of Prisons

The start of educational programs for adults in the 1930s, the introduction of professional social workers and the expansion of recreational programs in the 1950s, and the development of new vocational training and work-release programs in the 1960s marked the transition of the PPS to a program-oriented system. This national trend is embodied in the design of PICC, ASD-Central Unit, CFCF and RCF (Riverside Correctional Facility), which opened in April 2003. These facilities contain far more accessible and appropriate space for provision of educational, vocational and industrial training, recreational, and other services to the inmate population.


To provide a secure correctional environment that adequately detains persons accused or convicted of illegal acts; to provide programs, services, and supervision in a safe, lawful, clean, humane environment; and to prepare incarcerated persons for reentry into society in a frame of mind that will facilitate their becoming law-abiding citizens.