Stories From Cell Block 7: Auburn vs Pennsylvania

Originally apeared in Cell Block 7 Email Newsletter

By Abbey Williamson, CB7 Visitors Services | When Michigan started setting up their first state prison there were two penal systems to choose from, the Pennsylvania system or the Auburn system.

The Pennsylvania system, also known as the separate system, was a method that emphasized introspection and repentance. Prisoners were placed in a solitary confinement cell and kept in complete solitude their entire sentence. They were given a bible and were expected to sit in silence and reflect upon their crimes and behavior. The solitary penitence system was later modified to allow prisoners to work inside their cells doing shoemaking and weaving. This method became a controversial issue for most people because the permanent solitude was found to have deleterious effects on inmates, and in the end the system was unsuccessful.

The Auburn system, which was also known as the congregate system, was the method that Michigan chose to implement in its prison. Michigan chose the Auburn system because it would at least be partly self-supporting and place less of a burden on the taxpayers. This method replaced introspection with hard labor. It was believed that hard labor was productive, healthy, and helped to prepare the inmates for better success in the transition back into society.

Prisoners were expected to work together during the day and were then sent to solitary cells at night. Men were expected to march to and from work in lockstep and to wear striped uniforms. Silence was strictly enforced and should an inmate deviate from it they were to be punished. Towards the end of the 1800's the elements of lockstep, striped uniforms, and silence were abandoned as new forms of discipline and new prisoner rights grew.

Originally appeared in Cell Block 7 eNewsletter. 

Cell Block 7 Prison Museum, is a fully intact, closed cell block on the campus of the functioning prison, independently operated by the Ella Sharp Museum. Visit to plan your trip to Michigan's Prison Museum.


Enjoy lively, interactive stories of inmates past and present, prison lore and more on The Original Jackson Historic Prison Tours.

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