Benjamin Franklin And The Creation Of The Modern Prison

Prison hallway
William Anderson
December 7, 2020

How do you reform a reform? That’s a good question to ask when you hear discussions about prisons. After all, the modern prison was a reform itself. The same year that the U.S. Constitution was being written in 1787, something major unfolded that changed the world.

In the home of Benjamin Franklin, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was working on a plan. They wanted to reform the conditions behind bars. Disease, torture, starvation and more weren’t uncommon, so they created an alternative.

Seeing crime as a morality issue, they wanted prison to be about repentance. Think of this as an early view of rehabilitating imprisoned people. Reforms such as segregating based on sex and type of crime, and condemning torture, eventually led to something completely new.

The Eastern State Penitentiary was the first modern prison their work produced. Seven wings of 250 individual cells was a progressive change at the time. This model influenced other nations globally, but prisons like this fuel the monstrosity we know as mass incarceration.

Prisons remained a place to reenslave, torture, and kill Black people. Rehabilitation has nothing to do with a system that prioritizes punishment. Conditions people face influence crime. Prisons don’t fix this, but putting the needed resources into communities can.

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